Research & Insights

Language Changes How We Think About Natural Gas Extraction

Do people support fracking for oil and natural gas? New research suggests that the answer may depend what it’s called.

According to study findings published in the June 2015 issue of the journal Energy Policy, people are more likely to favor shale oil development but be less supportive of fracking.

For their study, researcher Christopher E. Clarke from George Mason University and colleagues used a telephone survey of 1000 American adults to explore the differences in public support for “unconventional oil and gas extraction using hydraulic fracturing,” or fracking.

Fracking is a process by which fossil fuels are tapped by “pumping water, sand, and chemicals underground to fracture the rock and release oil and gas.” Supporters of the process tend to refer it as “shale oil or gas development,” while opponents use the term “fracking.”

The survey collected information about peoples’ demographic characteristics and political leanings and also their levels of support for shale gas development via hydraulic fracturing.

Half of the participants were asked about “fracking,” while the other half was asked about “shale oil or gas development.” For instance, some participants responded to the question, “Overall, to what extent do you support or oppose shale oil or gas development?”, while others were asked “Overall, to what extent do you support or oppose fracking?” Participants were also asked what term or terms came to mind when they heard the phrase “shale oil or gas development” or “fracking.”

The researchers found that “fracking elicited more negative associations and comments related to environmental impacts (i.e. water contamination). By contrast, shale oil or gas development engendered more positive associations and comments about economic impacts (i.e., creating energy-related jobs in communities.” “Shale oil or gas development” was seen as providing more benefits to communities than risks, while “fracking” was perceived as being more risky than beneficial.

“Our findings,” the researchers note, “suggest that shale oil or gas development and especially fracking are ‘loaded’ terms. They are linked to different connotations and diverse social, economic, environmental, and health impacts.”

Communicators working on the issue of natural gas development need to be careful, then, what terms they use in their work, and are “clear about the process and impacts of unconventional energy extraction.”

“To the extent that one desires to convey both positive and negative impacts, phrases like ‘shale gas development via hydraulic fracturing’ may be useful additions to issue discourse.”

Energy Policy

Christopher E. Clarke, George Mason University
Philip S. Hart, University of Michigan
Jonathon P. Schuldt and Richard C. Stedman, Cornell University
Darrick T.N. Evensen, Oberlin College
Hilary S. Boudet, Oregon State University
Jeffrey B. Jacquet, South Dakota State University

Posted: September 30, 2015
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