In his opening speech on the state of hydraulic fracturing in Michigan, Public Policy Prof. Barry Rabe said if he were delivering an address on the matter five years ago, the premise would be quite different.

As fracking has proliferated across the state, public opinion has played an increasing role in the future of the practice. Students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents packed into Weill Hall’s Annenberg Auditorium on Monday morning to listen to discussion from Rabe and other panelists on public sentiment regarding shale fracturing to extract natural gas in Michigan.

Fracking is a method of extracting oil and gas by utilizing underground hydraulic pressure.

Jacquelyn Pless, a policy associate for the Energy Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said fracking offers technological advances, such as enhancing natural gas recovery and lowering electric power prices, as well as economic benefits, such as job creation and helping the state and local governments with a tight budget.

She added that there are also negative health consequences of fracking to consider, such as water contamination and withdrawal, as well as the negative impact on the surrounding vegetation and wildlife.

“Water contamination is linked to natural gas operations, such as spills and leaks,” Pless said.

At the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station in Battle Creek, Mich. last Wednesday, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder delivered an address on the state of Michigan’s environmental affairs. He specifically remarked on how the state can “do better” in regards to environmental efficiency and that the state should take advantage of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas.

According to Pless, 158 bills regarding fracking have been introduced in 26 states this legislative session. All of them address the enhancements of fracking through improved waste treatment and disposal in a variety of ways, such as chemical disclosure requirements and fracking fluid disclosure. Pless said Michigan is looking into similar measures to ensure safe fracking practices.

“Michigan state legislators are aiming to delay fracking operations until more is known about effects,” Pless said. “(Fracking) offers tremendous economic benefits, and states are working to ensure resources are developed safely.”

As fracking becomes a central issue in Michigan, Rabe emphasized that public opinion is more important than ever.

“This is an issue that’s been emerging for a number of years,” Rabe said.

Christopher Borick, a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, discussed his telephone survey study conducted last October that compared responses of Michigan and Pennsylvania residents.

Borick said he chose to compare Michigan with Pennsylvania because the Keystone state is pioneering fracking practices in the United States and is acclaimed as the new energy capital of the world.

According to Borick, the federal government’s influence on fracking policy remains quite limited, and the state has the opportunity to institute its own regulatory policies without much federal oversight.

“What does the public feel about (state level regulation of fracking)? Who should be regulating? Will regulation deter economic development? How do we find the way to have it both economically prosperous and at the same time protect the natural resources?” Borick said.

The last panelist, Erich Schwartzel — the editor of Pipeline, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s site detailing natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania — opened with a light joke, yet noted that fracking has garnered significant public opinion in the state.

“It was only a couple of years ago that we would get calls from the newsroom and hear people say, ‘Who is Marcellus Shale and why do you keep writing about it?’” Schwartzel said.

Erica Brown, a graduate student instructor in the School of Public Policy, asked the panelists whether they have observed public opinion shaping fracking policies. Pless responded that it depends on the influx of drilling in the given state.

“Public opinion is possibly coming into play a lot more in Pennsylvania than in Texas where they’ve been drilling for a longer time,” Pless said.

Borick added that he thinks the ideal Pennsylvania system would include more public benefit since many Pennsylvanians believe shale oil is a public resource.

“Pennsylvanians, although they think it’s good for the state, don’t think fracking provides the maximum amount of benefit,” Borick said.

LSA sophomore Marissa Solomon attended the event due to her interest in environmental policies. After the panel, she said she was happy the lecture was informative and unbiased.

“I thought they did a really good job of not being super biased, but still kind of showing concerns on both sides, and they all seemed like they were experts on the issue,” Solomon said.

Solomon added that people should take time to educate themselves about fracking, since it is becoming a relevant policy issue in Michigan.

“Michigan residents should really take the time to learn about fracking more,” Solomon said. “It’s becoming a really big issue here with Governor Snyder supporting it (and) a lot of environmental groups are against it.”

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