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Variation of public discourse about the impacts of fracking with geographic scale and proximity to proposed development

Abstract

Public response to energy projects affects the emergence of new technologies and the distribution of their risks and benefits. Here we use thousands of individually authored comments submitted during a regulatory review of unconventional shale gas development in New York State to reconcile previous, inconsistent results about the relationship between proximity and opposition to energy projects. We find that members of the public opposed unconventional shale gas development for different reasons, which varied systematically with proximity to unconventional gas wells. Public discourse in proximate communities was diverse, invoking environmental, social, economic and political impacts, and was anchored by concerns specific to a particular place. By contrast, a few nationally salient environmental concerns dominated public discourse in communities farther from development. Our results demonstrate that public response reflects the mobilization of alternative constituencies with unique understandings of the issue. Distinguishing among these is critical for understanding the nature of public response.

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Fig. 1: Geographic distribution of individually authored public comments by county.
Fig. 2: Average topic proportions for the 21 topics related to concerns about and/or impacts from USGD.
Fig. 3: Differences in topic proportion by Marcellus status.
Fig. 4: Relationship between county-level discourse diversity and distance to the nearest HVHF well application.
Fig. 5: Geographic dispersion of expressed concern as measured by weighted standard distance.
Fig. 6: The concerns most commonly expressed in each county.

Data availability

The original public comments data are part of the public record and available freely from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation through a public records request (https://www.dec.ny.gov/public/373.html). Because the full records include personally identifiable information (names, addresses and emails), they are not shared in a public repository by the author. Comment data that exclude personal identifiers are, however, available from the author upon reasonable request for replication and research purposes. Also, processed datasets, which allow the replication of the statistical analyses but exclude the raw comment data, are available online at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/XHSVTN.

Code availability

R code for replicating all statistical analyses can be accessed online at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/XHSVTN.

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Acknowledgements

I thank D. Bugden, A. Eads and S. Hazboun for valuable comments. I gratefully acknowledge support for this study from the National Science Foundation (award no. SES-161602248).

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F.A.D. designed and performed the research, analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Fedor A. Dokshin.

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Peer review information Nature Energy thanks Hilary Boudet, Darrick Evensen and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Dokshin, F.A. Variation of public discourse about the impacts of fracking with geographic scale and proximity to proposed development. Nat Energy 6, 961–969 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-021-00886-7

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