A survey of 1,000 U.S. citizens that set out to gauge where the public stands on the use of and issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing (fracking) found "an American populace that is largely unaware of and undecided about the issue," the study's authors said.

The survey and a related study were conducted by researchers at Oregon State University, George Mason University and Yale University. Their results were published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy.

"It isn't really unusual for lay audiences to be uninformed about specific technical issues such as fracking," said public policy expert Hilary Boudet of Oregon State. "And when you get into issues of oil and gas exploration or other contentious areas, the public gets conflicting information from the different sides that have vested interests in the outcomes.

"The fact that half of the people we surveyed know little if anything about fracking suggests that there may be an opportunity to educate the American citizenry in a non-partisan way about this important issue," Boudet said. "The question is who will lead that discussion."

The survey's findings stand in stark contrast to regions that are host to a hotbed of onshore drilling activity, such as Appalachia, the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, where two sides of the fracking debate have shaped up with little middle ground in between. One side argues for the sake of economic and energy security and the other voices skepticism about the technologies involved and grave concerns for the environment.

"These are just estimates and the public debate over the use of fracking is just beginning," Boudet said. "In some areas of the country, including New York and Pennsylvania, people are more familiar with the issue, but opinions are still divided as they try to balance the economic and energy benefits against environmental and community impacts."

The survey found that opponents of fracking were more likely to be women, hold "egalitarian world views," read newspapers more than once a week and associate fracking with environmental impacts. Supporters polled for the study tended to be older, hold a bachelor's degree or higher, were typically more conservative, and they watched television for news more than once a week, while associating fracking with economic or energy supply benefits.

As production continues at a steady pace and natural gas exports are projected to increase as imports fall (see Shale Daily, Dec. 16), and horizontal drilling is expected to generate a larger share of the nation's energy, researchers said the debate and the public's views on the matter will only grow in the coming years.

The study was funded by the Surdna Foundation, the 11th Hour Project, the Grantham Foundation and the V.K. Rasmussen Foundation.