Fracking bill analysis reveals how states may influence each other's policies

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Even though State governments routinely rely upon interest groups to help them as they craft legislation, researchers found that certain peer-leader states, like Pennsylvania and Colorado, have greater influence in shaping states’ fracking policies, in a study led by Penn State Professor of Geography Jennifer Baka.  

The study, titled “Disclosing Influence: Hydraulic fracturing, interest groups, and state policy processes in the United States,” revealed two important findings, Baka said.

“First, that influence of particular interest groups in providing so-called, ‘copy and paste’ legislation is not as widespread as previously thought,” said Baka. “’Copy and paste’ is when legislators literally take a piece of legislation written by interest groups and introduce it, verbatim, into legislative processes.”

There are pros and cons to this practice, according to Baka. On the positive side, “state legislatures are pressed for time and attention. Model bills help to fill important information gaps. Also, they help to reduce transaction costs for states,” she said. On the negative side, model bills are written by interest groups, both liberal and conservative, and “this raises important ethical questions about whose interests are being served.”

For example, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives, has begun amassing substantial influence across state legislatures across a host of public policy areas, as discussed in Alex Hertel-Fernandez’s book, “State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States — and the Nation.”

However, Baka’s study revealed that — even though both liberal and conservative interest groups often provided language and resources to state legislatures — peer-leader states were more influential, particularly Colorado and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania.

“We expected to find that ALEC had substantial influence over state fracking regulations,” she said. “Instead, we found evidence that states were indeed communicating with each other to develop regulations.”

Are the peer-leader states providing effective policy models? According to Baka, the answer to this question “depends on who you talk to. Civil society would like stronger environmental protections and industry groups would prefer more streamlined regulations.

“However, overall, I think states like Colorado and Pennsylvania have done a reasonably good job balancing the economic and environmental tradeoffs associated with fracking,” said Baka. “Colorado, in particular, used a stakeholder-driven approach to design their regulations. They did a good job at getting different groups to the table to deliberate on how to proceed.”

Baka said her take-away is optimism.

“States are coordinating and trying their best to come up with regulations that have teeth in the context of fracking,” Baka said. “In contrast to media accounts and Hertel-Fernandez’s book, it does not appear that states are ‘captured’ by the oil and gas lobby in the context of fracking fluid disclosures.”

The team was surprised by their finding, said Baka. “The literature on fracking regulation was painting a picture that states were somewhat in the dark when it came to regulating fracking — functioning as regulatory islands, if you will.”

Based on that, Baka said she thinks diversifying discussions and promoting stakeholder participation is likely to lead to more comprehensive and inclusive laws and regulations.

“I believe we should be promoting opportunities for diverse stakeholder engagement and venues for regulators to interact,” Baka said.

Baka said that the study’s second important outcome was demonstrating a new method for more precisely analyzing large volumes of text. The study used a Jaccard analysis to show the similarity of the documents, along with manual coding “to further test shared implicit meaning across the regulations that might not necessarily be captured by text analysis alone,” Baka said. “Combining the text analysis with manual coding is done less frequently, which is a novel contribution of our study.”

Next steps for Baka are to investigate how the state-to-state influence occurs. “Our next step will be to take a deeper dive into how groups like the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission function and how they help states to craft laws and regulations,” Baka said. “We hypothesize that these groups are key to the findings of our text analysis.”

The study is published in the December 2020 issue of the journal, Energy Research & Social Sciences. Penn State alumna Arielle Hesse, who earned a doctorate in geography in 2018, and faculty from the University of Toronto, Duke University, and University of British Columbia also participated in the research project.

  • cluster map

    A five-cluster analysis, with groupings that best matched the manual review of the regulations, was used to qualitatively discern patterns across the states.

    IMAGE: Harrison Cole

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