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Poll: To know fracking is to (not) love it

Dinner and a movie with the fracking industry.

As Gov. Larry Hogan considers whether to sign legislation that would put a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland, on top of the three-year moratorium that just ended, I'm left wondering if somewhere there is a drilling executive who is convinced that if the public just knew a little more about the drilling practice, they would embrace it — or at least be compelled to put down their "Don't Frack Maryland" signs. The phrase "to know me is to love me" comes immediately to mind.

You do not need to understand the science behind hydraulic fracturing to recognize that while Maryland has taken a (very) cautious approach, our neighbors have openly embraced the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. Thus, at the same time our governor is presented with a two-year hydraulic fracturing moratorium to consider, Pennsylvanians are discussing how much to tax extracted gas. Maryland finds itself at an interesting policy crossroads.

The ongoing debates concerning hydraulic fracturing in Maryland reflect how divided the Maryland public is on the issue: 45 percent oppose fracking, 36 percent support it, and 19 percent don't know, according to a late-February Goucher Poll. A similar pattern appears when residents are asked about banning the drilling practice all together: 39 percent oppose a ban, 42 percent support one, and 19 percent are unsure. Additionally, the same poll asked residents about the levels of hydraulic fracturing in two of Maryland's neighboring states (and potential economic competitors): 39 percent of residents were able to correctly identify the levels of fracking, and 61 percent either did not know or thought that only "low" or "no" fracking was occurring in both West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

This is where it gets interesting. Residents who know the levels of fracking occurring in neighboring states express different opinions toward the drilling practice than those who did not know; 53 percent of residents who "know" oppose the drilling practice, compared with 40 percent of those who don't "know." The difference is more pronounced along opinions toward an outright ban: 54 percent of residents who "know" support a fracking ban, compared with 35 percent of those who don't "know."

What is driving this unhappy relationship between knowledge and fracking?

Citizens who know the levels of drilling in our neighboring states are also more likely to agree that the state is losing out on economic benefit and that fracking causes a risk to Maryland's water resources. Thus, knowledge of cross-border fracking makes citizens more cognizant of both associated economic loss and environmental risks. Therefore, Maryland residents who know the levels of fracking in neighboring states must find environmental arguments against fracking more compelling than the economic arguments for it. If it was the other way around — the potential for economic loss trumping environmental concerns — then increasing knowledge would be associated with decreased support for a ban and increased support for fracking.

In sum, results suggest that residents who know about fracking are less supportive of it — even as these same people recognize the potential for lost economic benefit due to our state policies on drilling. Whether a compelling economic argument has yet to be made or if one can be made to counterbalance environmental concerns is a topic for another day.

So, what are drilling companies to do? Perhaps if there is nothing to hide — if the drilling practice truly causes minimal to no environmental impact — then maybe it's time for drilling companies to let Maryland really get to know them? And not just on the economic level, but on a deep, environmental level. Drilling companies can think of it this way: Maryland legislators did not recently say "no" to hydraulic fracturing, they said, "We want to get to know you better."

Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an assistant professor of political science. Her email is mileah.kromer@goucher.edu; Twitter: @goucherpoll.

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