March 20, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

What the Frack? Americans Don't Seem To Know Much about Hydraulic Fracturing

Public Favors Offshore Drilling (If  Negatives Are Not Emphasized)  

Today's post is Part II in our series on American attitudes toward various energy options.

Polls have generally shown majority support for offshore drilling, despite a dip in support following the Gulf oil spill in 2010. By March 2012, a Pew survey found that 65 percent said they favor “allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in US waters” to address America’s energy supply, similar to the levels reported in their 2008 and 2009 polls (Figure 1).

Similarly, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation polls from 2008 through 2011 found between 57 and  73 percent in favor of “increased drilling for oil and natural gas offshore in US waters,” except for 2010 when opinion was split (Figure 2). A majority in a 2012 Gallup survey also favor "opening up land owned by the federal government for oil exploration" (65%).

Neither of the long-term offshore drilling trend questions above mention any potential downsides, which prompted me to look for some credible polling on fracking.  But I have not been able to find many publicly available nationwide surveys on the topic. The few that are out there reveal a lack of awareness among the American public.

A March 2012 Pew survey asked how much people have heard “about a drilling method called fracking that is used to extract natural gas from underground rock formations” – a lot, a little, or nothing at all. Only 26 percent of Americans say they have heard a lot about fracking;  37 percent heard a little and 37 percent have heard nothing at all. Of those that have heard something (adding together those that have heard a lot and a little), more support it than oppose it (52% versus 35%), but that leaves out a large minority who say they have heard nothing about it.

A September 2012 Harris Interactive survey asked Americans whether the risks of fracking outweighed the benefits, and a plurality said they were not sure.  Of the rest, opinion was closely divided (Table 1).

Table 1.  Harris Interactive:  Thinking about Hydraulic Fracturing or ‘Fracking,’ which is a process of extracting natural gas from shale rock that is buried deep within the earth, which of the following is closer to your opinion?” [%]

The risks (including damage to the environment, minor earthquakes, and increased water usage) outweigh the benefits (including job creation, economic growth, and a domestic supply of energy)


The benefits (including job creation, economic growth, and a domestic supply of energy) outweigh the risks (including damage to the environment, minor earthquakes, and increased water usage)


Not at all sure


There have been a number of surveys conducted at the state level in New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and California that find that opinion quite divided in these states between support and opposition for hydraulic fracturing (though more support in Pennsylvania). Many see a benefit from job creation but also express concern about potential risks to the environment. These polls also underscore a lack of awareness even in states where fracking takes place, leaving room for fractivists like Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono to affect opinion. (Read Mark Ruffalo’s haikus about protecting water from fracking processes here;listen to Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon's anti-fracking video "Don't Frack My Mother" here).

This is the second post in a series on American attitudes on energy sources:


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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