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Poll Finds Appalachian Voters Support More Safeguards For Drilling

A poll of 1,250 registered voters living in the Marcellus and Utica shale regions released on Monday found that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed support more environmental safeguards and regulations as a condition of further oil and gas development in Appalachia.

The Nature Conservancy, a one million member global conservation organization, enlisted the left-leaning Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin & Associates and the conservative American Viewpoint research firms to conduct the poll by telephone from Aug. 18-26. Researchers said the survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 2.8%.

Overall, more than 80% of respondents said they support establishing stronger safeguards in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, where horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is at the forefront of the country's onshore energy boom. The poll also included voters in New York, Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia.

When asked by researchers, voters said forests were of utmost importance, with 68% saying they consider them critical to local economies and recreational activities. When offered a choice, 54% said they prioritize conserving forests, natural areas and wildlife habitat over natural gas development -- even if doing so would lead to higher energy costs, the poll found.

"The central Appalachians region is at the core of the national debate on how to keep our lands and waters healthy while tapping domestic energy resources," said Nels Johnson, shale gas lead for the North America energy program at The Nature Conservancy. "This poll affirms that the people living in this region support establishing strong environmental safeguards to protect forests, which are sources of crucial resources like clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, jobs and places for outdoor recreation."

The poll found that awareness of shale gas development across the region is high. More than three-quarters of voters said they were aware of the practice, while half said they had at least heard "a great deal" about oil and gas drilling.

When given a choice between prioritizing job creation in the outdoor industry -- such as recreation, tourism and timber -- or jobs in the oil and gas industry, 49% of voters chose outdoor industry jobs, while two in five of them, or 42%, said jobs in the natural gas industry were a higher priority.

Monday's poll comes at a time when the conservancy is preparing to release a scientific analysis of the potential impact of energy development within the central Appalachians. The organization is also preparing to roll out a tool that it says will help exploration and production companies (E&P) make better decisions about where to site well pads. The conservancy has also been active in collaborating with local communities, the energy industry and government agencies to minimize the environmental impacts of shale development.

In terms of environmental safeguarding, the voters polled said they would support requiring E&Ps to prepare regional plans for locating their wells and pipelines to reduce impacts. The poll also said more than 90 percent of voters endorsed an idea for oil and gas companies to follow strict scientific guidelines about where to put natural gas wells.

The conservancy's poll was released just weeks after aFraser Institute study that said the regulatory and tax structure in Pennsylvania is preventing further capital deployment in the state and undermining its competitive edge when compared to other oil and gas producing states such as Texas and North Dakota.

According to the poll, 87% of voters favor strict requirements that would limit the amount of methane that leaks from well sites during production, such as those recently proposed in Colorado (see Shale Daily,Nov. 18).

The conservancy has not yet provided a release date for its scientific analysis, but says it supports energy, mining and infrastructure development so long as it's "done in the right way."

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