Voluntary Third-party Green Certification Improves Fracking Public Opinion, Study Finds

April 24, 2019

Green certification for oil and gas companies could increase competition among those companies to be more environmentally friendly and could decrease public opposition to fracking, a controversial natural gas extraction process, a new survey has found.

Researchers at Indiana University’s O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs conducted a survey in Colorado that found public opinion of oil and gas development could be improved if companies were “green certified.” It is the first public opinion study investigating green certification in the oil and gas industry.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a common natural gas extraction process that involves injecting liquid into the earth’s crust at high pressure. Fracking has made headlines recently as the practice picks up.

"In many communities, fracking has been met with strong public opposition,” said John Graham, O'Neill SPEA dean and study co-author, in a news release. “Creating a so-called 'green club' of independently certified oil and gas developers could go a long way toward building public trust while also yielding environmental benefits."

This is a picture of Indiana University O'Neill SPEA Dean John Graham.
Study co-author and dean of Indiana University's O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs John Graham.

The researchers surveyed Coloradans about a hypothetical fracking project close to their community. Colorado was chosen because of a long history of oil and gas development, its advancements in fracking and local-level conflicts with oil and gas firms, according to the study, which was published in Energy Policy.

The survey results showed Colorado residents were more likely to support a hypothetical oil or gas project nearby if the company had “green certification.” These findings show oil and gas companies have greater public support if the company engages in voluntary practices that are more environmentally protective.

The study assumes the hypothetical company meets two fundamental criteria to achieve “green certification” and garner greater public support: “beyond compliance” and “third-party certification.”

This is a picture of the study undertaken by O'Neill SPEA.
Researchers surveyed Coloradans about a hypothetical fracking project close to their community and found they were more likely to support the project if the company had a "green certification."

“Beyond compliance” refers to the policies a company imposes on their projects that go beyond current state and federal regulations. “Third-party certification” ensures that the “beyond compliance” actually occurs, according to Michelle Lee, doctoral candidate and study lead author.

The study refers to the food safety industry as an area where “third-party certification” and “beyond compliance” have already been implemented.

IU professor James Farmer studies the decision-making process of farmers who pursue organic certification. He said those farmers are more interested in working with local certifiers who support environmental protection than bigger, non-local certifiers.

A high degree of trust between farmers and certifiers, and the public and farmers, helps organizations like the National Organic Program succeed, Farmer said.

But Farmer said there are fundamental differences between the oil and gas industry and the food industry. The main difference is the social capital that farmers have with the public which, Farmer said, “may spillover into the bodies that conduct certification.”

The study cites several certifiers in the oil and gas industry, such as the Center for Responsible Shale Development, based in western Pennsylvania, which sets shale development standards and a certification process for compliance with those standards.

“Each of these organizations covers a different range of issues related to the fracking, environmental and public health nexus, so this is a very interesting area for research,” Lee said.

Trust in oil and gas industry certifiers has not been studied, but Lee is working on a paper that looks at Colorado residents’ trust in different levels of government to see if that plays a role in their opinions of fracking projects.

The researchers still think this study is helpful for states across the U.S. and countries around the world.

“We believe that Colorado is a leader for managing its shale gas reserves, and therefore, an important state to observe,” Graham said. “For some states with less fracking activity such as Indiana, or states that are considering fracking activity, it would be prudent to firstly be aware of third-party certification for fracking, and secondly, to recognize how it may influence public opinion.”

Voluntary third-party regulations could have the added benefit of not only boosting public support of new fracking projects, but increased environmental protection from harmful oil and gas production methods.

Voluntary Third-party Green Certification Improves Fracking Public Opinion, Study Finds