The research, published this week, is based on questions about fracking included in the 2012 biennial Climate Change in the American Mind survey, which gauges the public's understanding of issues associated with climate change.
Advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology are responsible for the current shale oil and natural gas drilling boom in the U.S. The boom has begun to fuel a shift in electricity generation from carbon-emitting coal-fired power plants to cleaner natural gas power plants, reducing overall carbon emissions from electricity generation. The boom has also sparked concerns about how methane emissions from fracking and leaks in the natural gas production and distribution system may fuel climate change, which scientists have yet to fully quantify.
Voters in four Colorado cities and another in Ohio banned or placed a moratorium on fracking in November because of the public's concerns about how fracking could fuel climate change, pollute water and affect air quality. Two other anti-fracking ballot initiatives in Ohio failed on election day.
Four questions about fracking were included in the Climate Change in the American Mind survey, which sampled 1,061 Americans in September 2012. More than half of those surveyed said they had heard little or nothing about fracking, and 9 percent reported they had heard "a lot." Fifty-eight percent of the respondents said they didn't know or were undecided about whether they supported or opposed fracking, while 20 percent were opposed and 22 percent supported it.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed specifically reported that they knew nothing at all about fracking. Seven percent said they were aware of some environmental impacts of fracking and 3 percent said they were aware of positive economic and energy supply impacts of fracking.
"Shale gas development through hydraulic fracturing is a rapidly growing phenomenon in both the U.S. and abroad that has, in many ways, changed the policy conversation around energy supply and development," Oregon State University sociology associate professor Hilary Boudet, the paper's lead author, said Thursday. "For example, when I first began my dissertation back in 2004, the U.S. was trying to figure out ways to import natural gas. Now, we're talking about becoming a net exporter.
"A similar phenomenon is happening around oil," she said. "Public perceptions of this type of development will play a role, along with energy prices and technological advancement, in determining our future energy development and policies, thus it's important that we understand the depth of public understanding of the issue."
Boudet and her team's research showed that the depth of most Americans' understanding of crude oil and natural gas development using fracking is shallow. The research shows Americans have very little knowledge about fracking and its benefits and risks, findings that have implications for U.S. energy policy and risk communications, the paper says.
"Broadly speaking, our results paint a picture of an American populace that is largely unaware and undecided about this issue," the paper says. "Over half of those surveyed had heard nothing at all or only a little about it, and more than half didn't know or were undecided about whether to support or oppose it. Among the minority who has formed an opinion, respondents were nearly split between support and opposition."
Boudet and her team's findings aren't surprising to researchers at FracTracker.org, an oil and gas research organization formerly part of the University of Pittsburgh, but now independent, said Samantha Malone, FracTracker manager of science and communications.
"When conducting training sessions on how to use FracTracker.org, we often find that we must first explain the process of drilling for unconventional oil and gas before the training can commence," Malone said.
The public's indecision about whether to support or oppose fracking reflects the general lack of knowledge about the technology, she said.
"Education results in the formation of stronger opinions," she said. "At a policy level, this research supports the development of a more formal and objective educational approach to discussing the benefits and drawbacks of this emerging technology. The potential economic and job benefits and the risks such as environmental, health and social impacts as well as broader climate change implications should all be part of the larger energy dialogue."
The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry's chief lobbying and trade group, did not respond to requests for comment.