Promoting Community Sustainability in Light of Natural Gas Development Through Increased Understanding of Communities

EPA Grant Number: FP917454
Title: Promoting Community Sustainability in Light of Natural Gas Development Through Increased Understanding of Communities
Investigators: Evensen, Darrick Trent
Institution: Cornell University
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: August 1, 2012 through July 31, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Social Sciences


The goal of this research is to generate knowledge about how communities develop beliefs, risk perceptions and representations of unconventional natural gas development, with the purpose of using this understanding to advance community sustainability (environmental, economic and social) in municipalities where development is occurring or is likely to occur. By better understanding how ideas and beliefs about natural gas development emerge, this research seeks to identify means for designing and tailoring communications that help communities to strive for the positive economic effects potentially connected with development, while minimizing adverse environmental, economic, social and governmental impacts.


This study will investigate a range of factors that have been theorized to contribute to community sustainability: (1) community and regional attributes accounting for structural characteristics that predispose communities to certain development patterns; (2) policy actions, as well as actions groups of local residents independent of local governance structures, that foster sustainability; and (3) the relative role of individual cognitions versus community representations in generating beliefs about sustainability. Comparative case studies across multiple communities exposed to unconventional natural gas development will be the primary means of data collection. The researcher will triangulate between qualitative interviewing (individual and focus group), observations of public ritual (e.g., public hearings, community group meetings), and quantitative questionnaires to evaluate how the aforementioned factors predict community sustainability in light of gas development in study communities. After the qualitative fieldwork, but before analyzing the survey data, a structural equation model will be created, designed to predict how the theorized factors lead to thoughts and actions supporting community sustainability.

Expected Results:

This research program is designed to generate findings that provide specific guidance to extension educators, government officials, nongovernmental organizations, industry officials and even K-12 school teachers on how best to promote community sustainability in light of natural gas development, whether through policy, municipal ordinance, communication or education. The study seeks to identify, analyze and evaluate how community-level factors promote sustainability in real communities that are facing exacting decisions. This fits squarely within Objective 3.1 of EPA’s FY2011-2015 Strategic Plan: “Promote sustainable and livable communities.” Beyond the community level, this research will provide insight into how to use important regional and national energy resources wisely, while considering present and future environmental, social and economic needs. National security, the national economy, and the nation’s environment (e.g., through a transition to cleaner energy sources) are all dependent in part on sustainable natural gas development.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

Unconventional natural gas development offers a range of positive economic benefits to the individuals who lease their land and to the communities in which development occurs. Concerns about damage to human health (mostly through contamination of drinking water supplies, but also due to air, light and noise pollution) and the environment (e.g., habitat fragmentation, stream and river pollution with highly saline wastewater, disposal of radioactive materials) also abound. Better understanding regarding how people develop beliefs about gas and oil development will help reveal ways to communicate with different populations and subpopulations about how most effectively to achieve the positive outcomes of development while limiting the negatives.

Supplemental Keywords:

unconventional natural gas development, risk communication, social representations

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final