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Public interest in environmental and health impacts from shale oil and gas extraction (what the public calls “fracking”) is growing. Industry claims the public outcry against the new technology is not grounded in science. In February 2013, Resources for the Future (“RFF”) published a list of high priority “risk pathways” that experts from NGOs, academia, government, and industry all agreed were real concerns about fracking. This article used the risk matrix to evaluate whether public comments in dockets of federal agencies that proposed regulation concerning hydraulic fracturing tracked expert concern. The article found that the public tracked many of the experts’ shared concerns. The highest concern was water pollution in surface and groundwater from fracking fluids (or, “frac fluids”), flowback, and produced water. The public shared expert worry over cementing and casing failures and understood that these were the primary causes of most groundwater contamination. Damage to habitat was the third greatest concern raised by the public. Methane leakage into air and water was less cited. Concerns over technical matters were rarely mentioned by the general public but were often cited by self-identified experts. The article concludes that while the general public did not go into the detail about the regulatory mechanism that was often reflected by experts, the concerns raised by the public in comments to proposed rulemakings largely reflected the consensus themes of the experts. More significantly, the public writing overwhelmingly favored increased federal regulation to protect public health and the environment.


This work was originally published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal.

This study was funded by generous grants from Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York (“PSC-CUNY”) and the Hunter College Undergraduate Research Initiative.



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