Though nearly half of Pennsylvanians support natural gas drilling to some degree, about 58 percent would back a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until there is a fuller understanding of the risks, according to a poll released Tuesday.
Researchers tracking development of the state's Marcellus Shale released the findings of their second survey of residents asked about the natural gas drilling and "fracking" extraction technology that has inspired debate throughout the Commonwealth.
Overall support for drilling has been tempered by water contamination risks and the public's reliability concerns with state environmental regulators, said Barry Rabe, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and co-author on the report.
The survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College, polled residents in rig-heavy Pennsylvania and in Michigan, a state where fracking is still new. Researchers found Pennsylvanians were more likely to cite on-the-ground benefits to shale drilling, and were better versed in the risks associated with the development.
In Pennsylvania, the survey interviewed 424 residents by phone in late October and early November. Only 13 percent of those surveyed here had never heard of fracking.
The poll is something of an update to a 2011 survey by the same researchers. In the time between polls, more Pennsylvanians have started tracking the development, with 59 percent of those in the second survey saying they followed the debate very closely or somewhat closely. That's an increase from 48 percent in 2011.
Since that first survey, Pennsylvania legislators have also passed Act 13, a high-profile and sweeping set of laws that imposed statewide regulations on drilling and levied a per-well "impact fee" on drillers.
The legislation may have tempered debate over whether the state would have been better served by a severance tax on the gas extracted from below ground, researchers said. In the 2011 survey, 72 percent of respondents supported a severance tax. In the latest poll, 65 percent did.
The state Supreme Court is expected to rule shortly on whether local municipalities have the power to override state regulations of gas drilling. In the survey, 32 percent of respondents said the state should have decision-making authority regarding where operators can drill. A close 29 percent said it should come from the local level, and 14 percent thought it should be a federal call.
And as challengers to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett announce their candidacies for next year's race, about 19 percent of Pennsylvanians approved of the governor's handling of gas drilling, with 36 percent disapproving and 45 percent not sure.
"We were a bit surprised by the 'not sure,'" said Mr. Rabe. "That suggests there's some room for play in evaluating Corbett as he goes for a second term."
Pennsylvanians had little sympathy for gas drillers who do not disclose the chemicals used in the drilling process because they are considered a "trade secret." About 87 percent "somewhat disagree" or "strongly disagree" with the trade-secret argument.
The economic boon of new jobs and investments, and the energy independence that could come from U.S. development, were cited by Pennsylvanians as the leading benefits of fracking.
Water concerns topped the list of risks considered the most important to Pennsylvanians. About 34 percent said general water contamination was the leading risk related to fracking. Another 9 percent cited contamination to ground water and water wells.