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Pa. voters' view of shale gas industry trends negative, poll shows

After 14 years of drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, the gas industry's support among state voters is weakening, according to the results of a March 29 poll.

The poll by Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research said more than half of those surveyed, or 55%, think the environmental risks posed by gas drilling outweigh the potential economic benefits. That is the first time, in three polls spanning six and a half years, that the statewide survey found anything other than a tie on the environment versus the economy question.

The portion of people holding a favorable opinion of the industry fell to 48%. In the two previous Franklin & Marshall polls, over 60% had a favorable opinion of the gas industry.

The poll sent mixed signals, however, with 50% of people saying they supported gas drilling and extraction, compared to 42% who said they opposed it.

A bit of goodwill would help the gas industry this year when a popular Democratic governor is set to propose, for the fourth time, a severance tax on natural gas. While Republican lawmakers backed by the industry have defeated every previous effort to enact a tax on gas production, industry got a scare last year when the state Senate passed a severance tax. The larger House immediately stripped the tax out of the budget package. Gov. Tom Wolf, who has a double-digit percentage point lead over his three top GOP rivals in the same poll, plans to propose a volumetric severance tax equal to 4 cents/Mcf or 3 cents/Mcf, depending on whether gas is selling above or below $3/Mcf.

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Wolf's handling of shale gas development received the approval of 40% of those polled. His handling received the disapproval of 26%, and 34% said they did not know. The poll did not ask specific questions on a shale gas tax, but 39% of those polled said gas drilling has reduced the quality of life in the state, while 29% said it improved it.

The poll did not attempt to explain why a negative view of the gas industry is emerging at a time when, according to data on new wells from the state Department of Environmental Protection, drilling is at less than half the pace set during the boom years from 2008 through 2011. The industry is at its most visible during the first few weeks of a well's life, when the drilling pad is built and the well is drilled and hydraulically fractured, which can require a parade of water trucks. Once the well is complete, the flow of gas to market is hidden in pipelines and silent except for the occasional compressor station.

David Spigelmyer, president of the region's industry trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the poll did not capture how people really feel about gas production.

"What we continue to hear across the commonwealth is that Pennsylvanians support safe, domestic natural gas development that's creating jobs, resulting in the lowest consumer energy costs in more than a decade, boosting our national security, and leading to dramatic air quality improvements," Spigelmyer said. "Poll after poll demonstrates that, and we're proud of the positive progress that this industry continues to generate."

The central region of Pennsylvania, which has little shale activity, had the most favorable view of the gas industry. Voters in the city of Philadelphia, which has no drilling activity and which is generally more liberal than rural areas, had the least favorable view. Voters in the regions of the state most impacted by drilling activity, the northeast and southwest, were almost evenly split on their view of the industry. Voters in and around Pittsburgh favored the industry slightly. Results outside the center counties and the city of Philadelphia were essentially tied in their views of the industry, with any differences well within the poll's 7% margin of error.

Franklin & Marshall College conducted the poll by interviewing 423 Pennsylvania voters over the phone between March 19 and March 26. The results were then weighted according to the demographics of Pennsylvania.