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It Takes Two to Tango

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Fracking , The Economy and Environmental Political Debate

It takes two to tango. Debate exists because there are two sides to an issue, each with valid points to make. This doesn’t mean that the truth lies somewhere in between, although sometimes it does. Also, public opinion doesn’t determine what is right and what is wrong. However, the ability to influence public opinion will determine whether or not public officials will be motivated to enact appropriate policy measures to protect the environment.  Winning a public policy debate requires understanding why two sides of the argument exist and making a case for policy action that accounts for competing legitimate interests.

Environmentalists have been very good at winning arguments with other environmentalists. On the other hand, results with the public at-large have been mixed. Success doesn’t lie with convincing your allies. The environmental community is currently falling short in communicating the importance of environmental protection on a broad basis and that failure is translating into diminished political influence. A large part of the inability to influence public opinion stems from a failure to acknowledge the validity of dissenting opinions and the inability to frame environmental arguments in terms that resonate with the general public. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from recent events.

Very few policy issues have mobilized American environmentalists the way that the debate over natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing has. The process, which involves the injection of large amounts of chemical-laden water into wells to release natural gas held in deep rock formations has set people concerned with the environmental consequences of this activity against those who want to tap into this energy source and believe the process to be safe.   To environmentalists, especially in the densely populated northeastern U.S., fracking is a risky venture and the potential for permanent damage to natural resources is a price that is much too high to pay for the reward. To proponents of fracking, the lure of a plentiful domestic source of energy outweighs any environmental risks. Those who are environmentally oriented can’t understand why we would take such chances with public health and irreplaceable natural features any more than pro-fracking interests can understand why anyone would stand in the way of the exploitation of such a valuable energy source. This divide in opinion can be very instructive to environmentalists who are willing to make the effort to analyze both sides of this argument.

Trend: Energy Production vs. Environmental Protection

Gallup Poll-Energy Production vs. Environmental Protection

A recent poll conducted by Gallup in March 2012 revealed that 47% of Americans favored prioritizing development of new energy resources over protection of the environment, while 44% believed that environmental protection was more important. This split in opinion reflects a change in long-term trends that have seen protection of resources consistently rated higher in the public conscience. Factors such as an increase in gas prices and unrest in the Middle East have undoubtedly contributed to this shift, but there is likely more at play than just those elements. Understanding what issues influence public opinion at-large, not just opinions within the environmental community, is vital to the ability of environmental interests to build broad public support and influence public policy. The debate over fracking offers the opportunity to gain insight of that nature.

Natural gas drilling has been occurring in Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania for a decade. Drilling activity has taken place in the Susquehanna and Ohio River basins with a number of impacts. Truck traffic on local roads, clearing large areas of the state’s forests, the consumption of water and disposal of contaminated water removed from natural gas wells have directly affected the largely rural communities of the region. Many people are also familiar with the videos of flaming water faucets resulting from drinking water wells fouled by nearby fracking activity. At the same time these communities have also seen jobs and economic investment in an area that had been in a long-term decline. Many of the people most touched by the negative results support drilling because it has brought financial benefits to towns facing tough times. Jobs, lower energy costs and energy security are powerful components of the dialogue. America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a  group that represents drillers estimated that the industry accounted for approximately 600,000 jobs. Natural gas prices fell an estimated 36% resulting in a nine-year low in heating costs. There are valid reasons why public opinion is split and why vigorous debate on the merits of fracking continues.

However, there are signs that the communication of concerns over environmental consequences of natural gas drilling is having an impact.  When expansion of drilling in Pennsylvania to the Delaware River basin was recently proposed, thousands of opponents rallied in Trenton, NJ to protest. New York State banned fracking in the Catskill watershed where New York City’s water supply originates.   A recent poll commissioned for the Bloomberg News Service revealed that 65% of respondents felt that fracking needed more regulation as opposed to 18% who felt it needed less and 17% who weren’t sure. These results are at odds with the larger national trends that have appeared to favor energy development over environmental protection. The question is whether this represents a shift in the debate or is a manifestation of the concerns of an increased portion of the population directly impacted by fracking as the geographic area affected by drilling activity expands into more densely populated parts of the country. The answer is important because many of the competing issues present in the fracking debate are in play in the greater debate over protecting the environment at-large.

Trend: Should Protection of the Environment Be Given Priority, at the Risk of Curbing Economic Growth, or Should Economic Growth Be Given Priority, Even if the Environment Suffers?

Gallup Poll- The Environment vs. The Economy

Check out the broader trends evident in a recent Gallup sampling of public opinion regarding protection of the environment vs. economic growth. The trend is disturbing.  As recently as 2000, environmental protection outweighed economic concerns by a 70%  to 23% margin. Very few issues have drawn that kind of support in American political debate. Contrast that with where we are today. In late 2011, economic development was favored over the environment by a 49% to 41% margin.  How did we get here? Certainly, the effects of the Great Recession are somewhat reflected, but the downward drift (or is it a plunge?) in concern for the environment started well before 2007. The environmental movement needs to take stock of why its message isn’t resonating with the public to the same extent it once did.

It’s easy to look to blame larger societal trends, like the economy or increasingly partisan politics.  However, that only explains so much. It is more likely that, to quote Shakespeare, “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves…”. The environmental community has had a difficult time maintaining its relevance and stature in current political discourse. It isn’t because threats to the environment have diminished or aren’t as important as they once were. What has happened is the importance of environmental protection has fallen as a public priority.  This is a function of the failure of the environmental community to connect its important message with the sensibilities of the public.

Environmentalists have been unable to frame the debate and unable to fashion arguments in a manner that speaks to the concerns of the average person. When you don’t frame the argument  your opponents usually do.  The environmental movement has allowed itself, collectively, to be defined by its political foes.  Environmentalists have been characterized as elitists, liberals, anti-business, and even anti-American by their opponents.  Hardly true, but perception is reality. When you don’t own the debate, the debate owns you.  In the current political atmosphere traditional methods of communication and traditional arguments are insufficient. Defining environmental issues in terms of economics, quality of life and public health as well as presenting them with  as broad an appeal as possible is essential.

Clean air, clean water, adequate public open space, and outdoor recreational activities that depend on a healthy environment are still important.  These essential elements of a healthy and productive society are still under threat. The value of the environmental message is still there. Additionally, as competing interests place more and more pressure on our natural resources and threaten our air, our water and our quality of life the importance of following public policies that manage these threats becomes more important. However, policy-makers respond best to political power and influence. As the power and influence of the environmental community has waned, the threats have increased. It is up to the environmental community to up its capabilities to regain their stature.  Hopefully for our sake and the sake of generations to come they are equal to the task.

– Ben  Spinelli

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