WILLISTON, N.D – A new North Dakota Petroleum Council survey shows widespread support for oil and gas development in the state, but the level of support has dropped slightly from the council’s two previous surveys.
Eighty-three percent of North Dakotans surveyed last November say they support oil development, and 73 percent of state residents say the benefits of oil development outweigh the risks.
The industry group’s previous two surveys showed support of 88 percent or higher.
Tessa Sandstrom, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the timing of the survey on the heels of the Tesoro Logistics pipeline spill near Tioga may have affected the results.
“When we’d done it in the past, there hadn’t been any major incidents like that,” Sandstrom said.
But overall, the survey results show that North Dakotans overwhelmingly support the development, she said.
Eighty-three percent of North Dakotans said they would like the level of oil and gas production to stay the same or increase, while 12 percent said they would like development to decrease.
“North Dakotans recognize that the oil and gas industry has been a game-changer for western North Dakota, revitalizing and growing many of our once-shrinking schools and rural communities,” Ron Ness, the group’s president, said in a statement. “Never before have there been so many opportunities in western North Dakota and across the state.”
In previous years, North Dakota firm Odney Advertising conducted the survey, Sandstrom said. But for this survey, the council worked with opinion research firm Moore Information, headquartered in Portland, Ore., because the firm had the most experience of those that submitted proposals and did not have any conflicts of interest, Sandstrom said.
The firm conducted live phone interviews with 794 people who previously voted in a North Dakota election, using data from the Secretary of State’s Office, said Erik Iverson, vice president of Moore Information, who led the survey. Six hundred of those surveyed were a representative sample of voters statewide and a total of 349 of the respondents live in the state’s 19 oil-producing counties.
Among the other findings from statewide residents:
— 55 percent say state regulations on oil and gas are about right, while 28 percent say they are too lax.
— 55 percent agree progress is being made to address natural gas flaring and support oil production levels despite flaring.
— 59 percent do not blame the oil and gas industry for a decrease in wildlife populations, but attribute it to harsh winters and declining Conservation Reserve Program acreage.
Crime topped the list of social and infrastructure concerns related to oil development, but those in oil-producing counties didn’t rank it as highly as those in the rest of the state.
When asked how oil and gas tax revenue should be prioritized, those in oil counties ranked road and highway improvements highest while most statewide respondents said schools and education.
Moore Information, which has represented conservation groups as well as other industry groups and political candidates, worked with the Petroleum Council to develop the questions, Iverson said.
“The poll was constructed to be objective because they wanted an objective look at where public opinion is on the issue,” Iverson said.
Curtis Stofferahn, a University of North Dakota professor and rural sociologist, said professors at Cornell and Penn State have asked more nuanced questions to gauge public opinion on impacts from development of the Marcellus shale.
“If there is a bias it is in the sponsorship and the questions asked,” Stofferahn said.
Stofferahn questioned the opening two questions of the survey, which asked if respondents think the country is headed in the right or wrong direction and whether they think North Dakota is headed in the right or wrong direction.
“I thought the two opening questions were gratuitous and not important to the study, and they demonstrated a particular bias,” said Stofferahn, who directed a UND polling project that surveyed rural North Dakotans.
Stofferahn also said it would be interesting to compare the responses between subpopulation groups, such as longtime residents and recent residents, and those who work for the oil industry and those who don’t.
The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 4 percent for statewide respondents and plus or minus 5 percent for those in oil counties, Sandstrom said.