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Study Analyzes Public Trust of Government on Energy Issues

Contributed by: Student Research Fellow Grace Kovalan

As the production of oil and gas (UOG) in the United States continues to grow, public concern follows, which calls for a stronger outlet for public commentary and facilitation of discussions.

The 2020 study, Fracking Controversies: Enhancing Public Trust in Local Government through Energy Justice, conducted by Frances Marlin-Tackie and Shurraya Polunci, observes two communities in Colorado that facilitate public meetings differently. The authors study both communities by surveying the opinions of the public, and also evaluating their local governmental public meetings and the use of memorandums of understanding (MOU).

MOUs are used to build transparency and trust between governmental powers and the public. They are agreements in which operators agree to so to best manage their practices, and are shared with the community in which it governs. MOUs exemplify best management practices in which operators of the UOG industry can prevent social and environmental injustices associated with the area.

Marlin-Tackie and Polunci attended and recorded 24 public meetings with public comment periods related to UOG between the two communities studied, so as to focus on the publics’ comments specifically. Recordings were fact checked. They also developed a coding system, based on the original code created by Zilliox, in which they categorized the subjects speakers spoke on to find reoccurring themes of trust and mistrust. Reoccurring speakers were also interviewed to better understand the context of their comment and opinion.

Community A held meetings on weeknights after work, were flexible on speaking time, encouraged dialogue, comments, and questions between council members and speakers, and allowed people with children to speak first. Community B were strict on speaking times, did not ask questions or answer questions by the speaker, and held meetings during the workday.

While each community goes about public meetings differently, there was still a clear trend of mistrust of the UOG industry; there is also a severe mistrust in state government, likely because it is perceived as siding with the UOG industry. While there is a clear trend of mistrust throughout the public, Community A had more positive views and expressed more trust in local government by its community members of local government, and had more trust in the industry, the state, and local government overall. Community A, which facilitated recognition and procedural justice expressed more trust in its local government than Community B did.

The study concludes that public participation encourages positive socio-environmental outcomes, including trust in government and the UOG industry. Encouraging the community to not only attend public meetings, but be actively involved, also increases trust

After comparing how two different Colorado communities conduct public meetings, Pennsylvania can take this information and adjust their own conducts. These key factors which influence trust during debates about energy development can further aid researchers, policy makers, and the public in understanding the relationships between them, and also how to improve.

Including more public participation will not only involve the public more, but will also allow people to develop trust with their local governments and increase transparency between government, industry, and the public. Pennsylvanian communities should reevaluate their means of public involvement and implement more inclusive programs when dealing with the UOG industry and the public concern.

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