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Pluralities in N.Y., Pa. back drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale, surveys find

| Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 12:16 a.m.

Many people in New York and Pennsylvania have voiced concerns about the safety of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or fracking.

Two new surveys show that a significant percentage of people support drilling in portions of New York and that Pennsylvania residents who live amid heavy drilling think the benefits outweigh the risks.

Siena College, outside Albany, N.Y., said this week that a late November poll of 822 registered New York voters found 50 percent of respondents in suburban areas support drilling in upstate portions of New York, and 32 percent are opposed. In New York City, 41 percent of those surveyed support upstate drilling, and 29 percent are opposed. The poll did not break out the findings for particular suburbs or upstate areas.

The poll found 45 percent of upstate New York residents oppose drilling, compared with 39 percent who favor it. Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Poll said researchers were not able to break out the opinions of people in the region where some local governments support fracking.

A Pennsylvania survey, however, did just that.

The University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research asked similar questions to 403 people in Washington County, which has about 600 gas wells.

Forty-nine percent strongly or somewhat supported the boom, and 22 percent didn't care much one way or the other.

Just 10 percent were strongly opposed to drilling, and 19 percent were somewhat opposed.

A little more than 76 percent of Washington County respondents said drilling offers significant or moderate economic opportunities, and almost 32 percent had a family member who had signed a lease with a gas drilling company.

But almost 24 percent thought drilling represents a significant threat to the environment, and 34 percent thought it was a moderate threat. Forty-two percent thought it was no threat or a slight one.

The two states have taken different approaches to drilling in the huge Marcellus shale gas resource, which lies beneath large parts of both, as well as under West Virginia, Maryland and Ohio.

Pennsylvania officials from both political parties have embraced fracking, and more than 3,000 wells have been drilled there since 2007. New York put a moratorium on fracking in 2008 and is trying to decide whether to proceed.

Many drillers who have found highly productive wells near the New York border hope that state will allow them to expand operations.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested fracking be allowed in five counties near the Pennsylvania line, far from New York City and its watershed.

“Right now what we see is that downstaters, who would be the least affected from both the environmental and jobs point of view, are much more supportive than upstaters,” Greenberg said.

Sandra Steingraber, an anti-drilling activist who lives in Tompkins County, N.Y., just north of the five-county region likely to experience the first drilling, said upstate residents are more likely to be opposed because they have learned so much about the issue during four years of intense debate.

About 40 upstate communities have banned fracking. Movements for similar bans are under way in about 90 more communities, but almost all are outside the most likely drilling area.

The industry argues that only the state has authority to regulate gas drilling.

About 60 communities, most of them in the five-county region that Cuomo has suggested might be opened to drilling, have passed resolutions saying they won't ban fracking but instead will defer to the state's authority to regulate the industry.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, noted that New York residents use large quantities of gas that comes from fracked wells in other states. She noted that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said expanded natural gas use “makes good economic and environmental sense.”

Patrick Henderson, Pennsylvania's energy executive in the governor's office, said the Siena College poll shows that New Yorkers “see in Pennsylvania and other states the ability to develop this resource responsibly while protecting the environment.”

Greenberg said the poll also shows that any decision about fracking in New York will be controversial.

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