Pennsylvanians remain divided on the issue of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and are uncertain of how safely it can be performed in the Marcellus Shale. But the issue may not be at the forefront of voters’ minds in the 2014 gubernatorial election, according to a pollster from Mercyhurst University.

According to a poll conducted this fall by the Mercyhurst Center for Applied Politics (MCAP), 49% of respondents support fracking, 28% are opposed and 24% either had no opinion or said it depended on the circumstances. By comparison, 55% of respondents said they supported fracking in an MCAP poll from 2011.

“When you look at both of these polls, you find that the population is still really divided,” MCAP Director Joseph Morris told NGI’s Shale Daily on Tuesday. He added that the margin of error for the latest poll was plus/minus 4.75%. “The results suggest people are not 100% persuaded that fracking will be done safely yet, nor are they 100% certain that there’s going to be significant negative environmental impacts.

“We’ve been talking about this for years. It would be nice to see some sort of clarity emerge in public opinion, but we’re not there yet.”

The latest MCAP poll found that 59% of respondents were opposed to fracking in state forests, and 70% were opposed to the practice being performed in state parks. The results were relatively unchanged from the 2011 poll.

Other results were more of a mixed bag. MCAP found that 61% of respondents did not believe oil and gas companies operating in the Marcellus Shale “truly care about protecting the environment,” up from 60% in 2011. At the same time, 63% believed more regulations were needed to protect the environment (down from 67% in 2011), and 43% said gas extraction poses “a significant threat to our environment” (unchanged from 2011, but the “no” side fell from 42% in 2011 to 36% today). In the latest poll, a plurality (47%) said fracking was a threat to water resources, but a plurality (48%) also said fracking was not a threat to human health.

The economic benefits from shale development were another story, with 70% supporting a tax on gas extracted from the Marcellus and 53% believing that gas extraction — even if it were not taxed — would benefit the state’s economy. Majorities also believe gas extraction has brought a significant number of jobs to Pennsylvania (56%), that gas extraction will help increase the nation’s energy independence (61%), and a “significant number” of private landowners are “making a lot of money” (66%) from gas drilling.

Morris conceded that MCAP did not ask respondents to rank the fracking issue in terms of importance in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

“Having said that, it would not surprise me in the least if the Marcellus Shale was not as big of an issue as one might think it should be,” Morris said. “The reason for that is the nature of Pennsylvanians’ environmentalism. We have a fairly long history of conservationism in this state, which tells us that the environment should be used for economic purposes. It’s simply our job to make sure that the impacts from our use of the land are minimized.

“To us, when combined with all of the other responses given to the other questions, suggests that Pennsylvanians still aren’t exactly sure where they stand on the issue of fracking. And again, I think this just relates to the fact that Pennsylvanians are not opposed to using the environment for economic purposes, they just want to make sure that it’s done safely.”