Thursday, September 23, 2010

Risk Perception determines Attitudes towards Drilling

Yard signs are proliferating around here. Drive Route 96/96B from Owego to Ithaca and you can't avoid seeing the signs: "Friends of Natural Gas" in one yard, "No Frack" signs in the next. Ask Penn state sociologist Kathy Brasier why there's so much polarization over drilling, and she'll tell you that it's not age, income or length of residence that makes a landowner pro- or anti-drilling. It's how he perceives the risks associated with drilling.

Brasier recently presented preliminary data from the “Community Satisfaction Survey”, collating answers from 1920 people in 21 counties in Pennsylvania and eight in NY. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents lived in their communities for 20 years or longer, rating their quality of life as “very good”. Over 70 percent listed drinking water, neighborliness and the natural environment as the reasons for living where they do. Ten percent had already signed gas leases and just under half of those said they were satisfied with the terms of their leases.

While they haven't seen an influx of Marcellus drilling in their areas, close to 50 percent believe that the environment will get worse and at least one third are worried about road impacts, increasing crime and the availability of affordable housing.

People’s opinions may be informed by their experiences with gas drilling, Brasier said.  “Those supporting Marcellus development tend to have wells nearby. They are the ones more likely to expect jobs and job training opportunities to increase.” 

Those who support gas development also perceive risks differently from those opposed to Marcellus drilling. Risk perception has a lot to do with the level of fear, uncertainty and familiarity with the industry, Brasier pointed out.It is also based on the potential for catastrophic events, how preventable problems are, and the distribution of risk.

“For example, are those who benefit economically also taking the risk?” Brasier asked. Nearly half of the survey responses indicated concern that only a few people in the community will benefit from drilling.

What has become clear, as Brasier has analyzed the data, is that risk perception reveals two distinct ways that people think about drilling. “These polarized groups have fundamentally different orientations towards the natural environment, sources of trusted information, and expectations for impacts,” she said.

Those who perceive lower risks associated with Marcellus wells demonstrate a higher trust in the gas industry and basically view humans as dominating nature. In contrast, people who perceive a higher risk with Marcellus drilling tend to place their trust in environmental groups and view humans as being an integral part of the ecosystem as a whole. Each group sees the risks and rewards differently.

Interestingly, NY respondents expressed a higher level of concern and negativity towards drilling than their PA counterparts. Brasier believes this is a result of  the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decision to not issue generic Marcellus drilling permits until their study of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing is complete. This “effective moratorium” created an opening for debate that allowed for a high level of mobilization and organization on both sides.

This polarization makes it particularly difficult for communities trying to navigate the conflict, Brasier noted. She listed some strategies for communities dealing with polarized interest groups. “First, recognize the context in which concerns are raised,” Brasier said. “Acknowledge what is at risk for each group.” Equally important, Brasier urges community leasers to assemble the best information from multiple sources.

“Building trust will require transparency, discussion and a commitment to agreed-upon goals,” Brasier said. She suggests that communities struggling with these debates take the time to create a process that allows people to identify the basic issues they have in common. “Not their positions on an issue,” Brasier says, “but their interests in having good jobs for their children or protecting some feature of their community that they all value.” This will take time, she cautions. The process must give people the opportunity to learn, to discuss, and to create relationships with others throughout the process. It has to provide a safe environment for people to listen to one another and, maybe, move their positions without losing face.

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