Pennsylvanians are increasingly in favor of imposing a severance tax on natural gas production, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Center for Opinion Research (COR) at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.

In a survey of 525 people contacted between Aug. 22 and Aug. 29, 65% favored a tax and 21% opposed it. When COR surveyed 521 people on the topic in March, 62% favored a tax and 30% opposed it (see Shale Daily, March 18).

While the intervening months saw support for a tax grow and opposition shrink, it also saw ambivalence increase with 14% of respondents saying now they don’t have a strong opinion about the tax, compared to 8% in the March survey. The new survey contains a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

The March survey asked if Pennsylvanians supported using a tax to help balance the state budget. While lawmakers ultimately passed a budget without a tax, support for a tax appears to have remained constant (see Shale Daily, Jan. 18; Dec. 28, 2010).

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has consistently opposed any tax on natural gas production but said he could support an impact fee to pay for capping abandoned wells and other environmental efforts. While some lawmakers continue to push for a severance tax, momentum is growing behind an impact fee (see Shale Daily, Aug 8; June 30).

When the Pennsylvania General Assembly returns from its summer break later this month, a major concern will be how to divvy the proceeds of a tax or a fee between statewide programs and the communities where drilling occurs. The governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended an impact fee, but only to help local communities offset development costs not recovered through other means and not to fund statewide programs (see Shale Daily, July 19).

Many lawmakers have challenged that stance, and the latest poll shows that they have public support. While 72% of those in favor of a tax believe the proceeds should benefit both the state and local communities, and 14% believe the proceeds should benefit the state, only 12% believe the tax revenue should go solely to local communities.

Generally speaking, the most recent survey shows ambivalence about development. For instance, 66% of respondents had a favorable opinion of the industry and only 23% had an unfavorable opinion, but 39% said the potential economics benefits of drilling outweighed the possible environmental damage, while 35% said the opposite and 26% weren’t sure. When asked whether drilling improved or reduced the quality of life in the communities where it occurs 35% saw an improvement, 26% saw a reduction and 40% said they just didn’t know.

But the public is definitely not ambivalent when it comes to drilling on state land. Pennsylvania currently leases around 700,000 acres of state forests to drilling companies, but a moratorium is in place on further leasing. When told that some state officials want to expand leasing but that the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency in charge of state land, believes more drilling “is likely to harm the forests,” 72% of respondents opposed further leasing while only 22% supported it (see Shale Daily, Nov. 16, 2010; Oct. 27, 2010).