standard Fracking in the US: Local responses to complex risks

The Durham Energy Institute hosted a visit from Professor Susan Christopherson, Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, whose research focuses on political-economic policy. Sam Almond from DEI reviews Susan’s talk entitled: ‘A Distinctive US Approach to Shale Gas Development? Local Responses to Complex Risks’, that examined how communities react to and prioritise perceived risks from hydraulic fracturing operations. The talk was organised and hosted by Durham Energy Institute, Department of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience.

Shale gas exploitation (or ‘fracking‘) has revolutionised the US energy market over the last decade, with the country as a whole experiencing lower gas prices and increased energy independence. Some gas-rich regions have seen booms in their economy with reduced unemployment and large financial rewards for landowners and certain local businesses.

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Production of natural gas from shale in the United States has expanded rapidly in the last ten years, and is projected to continue through 2040 (EIA 2013a).

However, many local residents have opposed such developments and are concerned regarding issues such as safety, industry regulation, and disruption to their way of life. With shale gas exploitation becoming ever more likely in the UK, it is important to learn from the US experience to understand how communities react to the industry, and how best to regulate the industry to alleviate public concern and to mitigate any negative impacts of the shale gas industry.

A key finding of Susan’s research, which largely focused on the shale-rich state of Pennsylvania, is that US communities are not only concerned over the much publicised potential environmental risks associated with fracking, but also the long-term social and economic effects of large-scale shale gas exploitation.

The talk highlighted economic and social risks such as:

  • Crowding out of local industries such as tourism and organic farming.
  • Loss of property values due to proximity to drilling sites.
  • Increase in crime due to large population influx.
  • Lack of sufficient services to deal with increased populations.

Many concerns of local people focus on how the peripheral costs of shale exploitation in an area will be met by the community. For example, fracking in an area puts increased strain on local traffic infrastructure; many communities are concerned that residents will incur the costs of maintenance and upkeep.

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Main road in Towanda Township, Bradford County, Pennsylvania before it was used as a transport route by the shale gas industry.

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Main road in Towanda Township, Bradford County, Pennsylvania after a high volume of overweight drilling trucks and a Northeast winter (Photo: PennDOT Engineering District 4-0).

Similar concerns apply regarding increased demand on local health and education services for example. The talk concluded with a discussion of interviews conducted with members of the public in affected regions. A key issue highlighted from these interviews was the desire for greater local government regulation of the shale gas industry due to distrust of state or industry regulation. Applying this to the UK situation, it will be vital to ensure that local communities feel that they are adequately compensated for any perceived costs incurred by a growing shale gas industry, and that trust is built through community consultations and openness on the part of industry and regulators.

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