Forget geology, hydrology and physics; what’s the sociology of shale?
BY ERIC LIDJI FOR GREENING OF OIL
People don’t like the oil and gas industries.
In public opinion polls of major industries, oil and gas producers consistently get the most negative ranking year to year, lower than bankers, lawyers and the government.
And yet people use oil and gas, and lots of it.
Dr. Gene Theodori of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, studies the public perception of unconventional natural gas development.
That may seem useless to some; after all, the debate should be moving toward verifiable facts, not gut feelings, right? But Theodori said perceptions, as opposed to objective facts, show what people are worried about when it comes to drilling, and therefore let industry, government and environmental groups know what issues to need to be addressed to win public support.
For sociologists, “What we perceive is real, is real in its consequences,” Theodori said at a recent conference in Pittsburgh covering techniques to improve the environmental impact of developing the Marcellus Shale.
Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems, a program run by the Houston Advanced Research Center and Texas A&M University, and the Petroleum Technology Transfer Council hosted the one-day conference.
Although energy is discussed globally, it’s produced in communities. Shale development, the fastest growing fossil fuel, is bringing natural gas development into corners of the country not used to drilling, like parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Arkansas.
Theodori’s work reveals what he calls “the public paradox,” or the idea that people resent the intrusion of unconventional gas drilling, but appreciate the results of that intrusion.
“Paradox” might not be the right word. It’s not entirely contradictory for people to like the outcome of industrial activity more than the activity itself. Drivers, for instance, might dislike detours and road construction, but still appreciate improved roads.
Regardless, though, Theodori’s work highlights two interesting gaps: one between what the public sees as the positive and negative impacts of unconventional gas drilling, and the other between how the public views the industry and how the industry views itself.
“So what? Why is this important? Why am I interested in measuring the public’s perception of the gas industry?” Theodori said. “I give these data right back to industry.”
A look at the Barnett, from Wise and Johnson Counties
In 2006, Theodori sent surveys to hundreds of people living in Wise and Johnson Counties, two places in the Barnett Shale region of North Texas.
The counties differ in many respects. Wise is small, rural and familiar with natural gas drilling. Johnson is mid-size, increasingly suburban and fast becoming a “sweet spot” of the Barnett Shale, with producing wells increasing more than 1,200 percent between 2005 and 2009.
The survey measured perception. It included a list of 30 items, like “increased truck traffic,” “crime” and “availability of good jobs” and asked respondents to say whether each issue was “getting worse,” “getting better” or “staying the same” as natural gas development continued in the county. Each survey also asked respondents to agree or disagree with 10 statements, such as “in the long run, I’m sure that people in this area will be better off if our natural gas resources are developed” and “even when carefully controlled, natural gas development is likely to upset the quality of life in a local area.”
Theodori found that people generally had a negative view of the industry when it came to social and environmental issues like traffic, pollution and crime. On economic and service-related issues, though, like jobs, health care, schools and emergency response, people generally saw things getting better since natural gas production began. Familiarity widened the gap. In veteran Wise County, views about water quality were more negative and views about public services were more positive than in newcomer Johnson County.
“Would they start to at least like us?”
Those results won’t shock anyone who lives near drilling operations, but that’s because they measure public perception. The crowd of engineers and geologists at the conference seemed somewhat surprised. Previous speakers described their work as a force for good, providing energy Americans want in abundance and the jobs they desperately need. The industry also thinks it’s responsive to technologies that make drilling safer and cleaner.
That frustration over public opinion came across in a joke one driller made to Theodori: “As an industry, I know they will never love us, but if we just shut the valve and they had to do without us for an extended period of time would they start to at least like us?”
Theodori offered his findings after a day of presentations on closed-loop mud systems that keep hydraulic fracturing fluid out of open pits, and new engines that can power drilling rigs with fewer toxic emissions. The work of a sociologist wasn’t expected.
But Theodori hopes his research will teach the industry how to talk to the public about drilling. He thinks companies need to do a better job laying out the risks of development to the public before drilling, but also about touting their new technological successes.
“These are what the folks in your community are concerned about,” Theodori said.
Bringing the survey to the Marcellus
Theodori recently conducted similar research in Fort Worth, where drilling takes place in urban subdivisions. He plans to expand his study area to include the Marcellus Shale by looking at Bradford County, Pa., home to a significant natural gas development, and Broome County, N.Y., where there is currently a statewide freeze on shale drilling.
The work could be particularly useful in Pennsylvania, which isn’t as used to drilling as Texas and where local municipalities are more powerful and more abundant. That said, Theodori believes industry shouldn’t come out waving its own banner.
“Industry can’t do it alone, though, because the public is not going to believe it. If the industry could get Oprah to speak on its behalf, it’s over. Everybody would agree,” Theodori said.
Links of interest
Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems
The Petroleum Technology Transfer Council
“Paradoxical Perceptions of Problems Associated with Unconventional Natural Gas Development” from Southern Rural Sociology (2009) by Dr. Gene Theodori
Gallup polls on the public opinion of various industries, including oil and gas
Shale news in brief
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is starting a two-year study to see whether the Marcellus Shale and other shale formations in New York, Vermont and Kentucky could potentially be used for carbon sequestration.
See previous Greening of Oil coverage: Marcellus primed for CSS
Rig reports show that shale drilling has been mostly flat this summer.
New wastewater treatment standards for total dissolved solids in Pennsylvania are now in effect and enforceable. The standards greatly impact Marcellus Shale production.
See previous Greening of Oil coverage: PA regulations create tech puzzle for RD
Contact Eric Lidji at email@example.com.
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