Underneath huge swaths of land in Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the United States, in between the cracks and pores of rocks, natural gas waits to be extracted.
For millions of years, the energy source sat untouched, its potential untapped. Around 2005, increases in the price of oil and advancements in technology, especially the advent of a hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, made natural gas more accessible and viable.
Now Americans are extracting, and using, more natural gas than ever. The withdrawal of the fuel from the ground in the U.S. steadily rose each year from 2005 to 2015, and though it declined slightly in 2016, natural gas helped generate more electricity in the U.S. that year than any other source of energy — more than coal, more than oil and more than double all renewable sources of energy combined.
The increase in production has stressed the ability of existing infrastructure to deliver the product to market, placing pressure on energy producers and the government to increase pipeline capacity. Billions of dollars are being poured into expanding existing pipelines and building new ones. In 2016 alone, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, approved close to 40 new pipeline projects.
“The expansion of natural gas has made it one of the nation’s most important sources of power, but it also comes with costs,” says Dr. Michael Brogan, an associate professor in Rider University’s Department of Political Science.
Natural gas heats homes and offices, provides light in the dark and powers fleets of vehicles. It is also generating the dream of long-term low-energy costs and an energy-independent nation, though many question if the environmental effects caused by the methods of extraction and building of infrastructure are worth the benefits.
“People never really think about the details when they talk about energy independence,” Brogan says. “You often hear platitudes, but once you get down into it, the main issue is really about trust. There is a lack of trust that the process is fair and in the public interest.”
From 2014 to 2016, Brogan and a group of students attended public meetings in New Jersey on the expansion of the PennEast Pipeline to interview attendees and gather research. The proposed 120-mile pipeline in New Jersey and Pennsylvania has generated a fierce backlash locally, even as the project continues to progress. Proponents say the pipeline will reduce energy costs and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental damage and loss of property rights. Brogan says at first he was eyed with skepticism by both groups but was able to develop a productive relationship with opposition groups.
“It took a while to gain the trust of those individuals and groups directly impacted by the pipeline,” he says. “While at the same time it’s eye opening to see the pushback we received from both PennEast and their supporters, neither wanted anything to do with our project.”
Polling tells a story of ambivalence when it comes to how citizens judge the benefits and costs of the current natural gas boom, and if one outweighs the other. The consensus seems to be that people want the benefits without the risks. Aware of these competing views, Brogan set out to conduct research about how Americans perceive the benefits and risks of natural gas, and how those perceptions shape their views of an energy source that will likely play a central role in powering our way of life for decades to come.
Brogan has been teaching at Rider since 2007. He earned a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Delaware, a master’s in public administration from Rutgers and a doctorate from the City University of New York. For much of his academic career, he focused his research on voting behavior, public budgeting and campaign finance. About four years ago, those topics began to shift.
“I wanted to do something that was more relevant to people’s lives,” Brogan says. “The pipeline study is useful to policymakers because it helps show what people are fearful of and how to mitigate that fear and open up a discussion of risk, which is often downplayed.”
He’s incorporated fieldwork into his classes, teaching students how to conduct interviews and gather research about natural gas pipelines from impacted landowners, officials from labor unions and regulatory agencies, activists and others.
Brogan also designed a national online study to help him understand how individuals perceive the likelihood and severity of pipeline accidents. Though rare, pipeline accidents can be catastrophic. “Pipeline accidents are usually out of sight, out of mind,” Brogan says. “National stories on pipeline explosions tend to be regional or local. It’s not like terrorism, which tends to receive national or international coverage.”
As a result, risks associated with natural gas pipelines are often abstract, making it difficult to evaluate their overall threat. Examples of threats more vivid in nature are much more likely to affect behavior. Think of terrorism. Most people accept the inconveniences of airline travel, such as security screenings and the removal of shoes, because it is very easy to recall the horrible outcomes of a terrorist attack.
“I don’t think there is any direct intention of obscuring the safety aspect when it comes to natural gas pipelines,” Brogan says, “but they don’t normally receive widespread, urgent attention because accidents ‘only’ happen to a family or a community.”
Brogan found that as soon as individuals were presented with more vivid examples of pipeline risk, they became much more sensitive to safety issues. “Individuals seek out choices that ensure the maintenance of a perceived state of safety,” he says. In other words, any disruption to the status quo is viewed negatively, even when factoring in the chance of economic benefit. As such, individuals made aware of vivid examples of pipeline accidents are more likely to choose safety over money.
Is that choice irrational? Brogan says no. “In fact, when individuals become aware of risks of a particular project, there is a connection between emotion and rationality.”
“The use of vivid examples of pipeline risk help individuals conceptualize the problem in broader terms,” he continues. “That doesn’t mean vivid examples should necessarily drive public policy, but they can inform policymakers regarding the public’s perceptions of risk. The research suggests the public both wants and needs more information about the dangers of natural gas pipelines. If risks of pipeline expansion are deemed unnecessary by the public, then it should come as no surprise as to why organized opposition flourishes.”