Perception of fracking hits four-year low

Materials World magazine
,
1 Dec 2016

A Nottingham University paper has found that public approval for shale gas extraction is at a four-year low. Professor Sarah O’Hara gives Khai Trung Le an insight into public perception.

As the UK Government commits to shale gas extraction via fracking, including overruling Lancashire County Council’s rejection of a future fracking site for UK energy company, Cuadrilla Resources, it may face continued opposition as public perception of shale gas extraction reaches an all-time low, following high-profile news coverage and protests within the UK and internationally.

Sarah O’Hara, Professor of Geography and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education at the University of Nottingham, UK, began investigating public perception in shale gas extraction following earthquakes near Blackpool on 1 April and 27 May 2011. Located close to the Preese Hall, Weeton drilling site, the magnitude–2.3 and 1.5 quakes were attributed to Cuadrilla Resource’s hydraulic fracturing activities, better known as fracking, following British Geological Survey studies. Cuadrilla would eventually concede to having caused the quakes, but coverage incited O’Hara to investigate further.

‘I could not believe an earth tremor of that magnitude had caused anywhere near the damage the newspapers were suggesting. This triggered a project looking at how shale gas extraction is being perceived by the media, and how people are perceiving the issues around shale,’ she said.

Initial surveys in 2012 revealed a low proportion of respondents – around 37% – that could identify shale gas. ‘Quite low, given the amount of coverage it had,’ said O’Hara. ‘But those that were able to identify shale were largely in favour of its extraction, even if they thought it might cause water contamination or trigger earthquakes.’ Recognition and approval of shale gas extraction gradually rose throughout 2012 and 2013 (see Materials World, February 2013, page 36), leading up to the Balcombe protests in August 2013. The event picked up traction with the high-profile involvement and arrest of now co-leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas MP. According to O’Hara, ‘shale suddenly went from the financial pages in the business section to front page news, and the debate around shale changed.’

Following the protest, O’Hara noted a large spike in recognition of shale gas extraction, and a shift in both the tone of media coverage and the areas of contention. Surveys in 2013, ‘14 and ‘15 revealed gradually diminishing support for shale gas extraction, leading to the first negative differential of -3.6% in October 2016.

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One of the clearest divisions between respondents was between men and women, with the latter group far more inclined to have a negative perception of shale gas extraction. While the overall differential in the perception of shale gas extraction is -3.6%, O’Hara stated that it is closer to -20% for women. ‘Many women think it is heavily associated with water contamination, bad for the environment and don’t think it’s economically sound. Even though both men and women are moving away from shale, women are driving the negative response. They don’t like it, they don’t want it.’

However, the difference was not borne out of the shift following the Balcombe protest, but recognised since the beginning of surveying. Although women have been statistically less likely to recognise shale, O’Hara noted that ‘those that do are generally far less in favour. Overall, men have been much more in favour – often in 60+% – whereas women have always been much lower.’

O’Hara refers to previous surveying revealing that women are greater attuned to perceived threats to family and security, including information from a 2015 online course led by the University of Nottingham. ‘People are still relying very heavily on newspapers. When we told them about a single news item about cows in Pennsylvania that had died shortly after exposure to open water ponds, where toxic frack water was disposed of, their priority from that moment on was health.’

The respectability of a new demographic of protester may also be a deciding factor in shaping the future of shale gas extraction approval, argues O’Hara. ‘With GM crops, it was young men and women who would hang out in trees, hold up roads and try and destroy fields. But this debate is going to be represented by articulate, well-educated and well-dressed mothers and middle-aged women who can argue and will have quite an appearance in those lines, and will be difficult to manage against.’

Thirsty birds, horse heads and grasshoppers

Despite the shift in approval, recognition of the variables of shale gas extraction – whether it is recognised as a clean energy, a cheap resource, and its role as part of the UK’s wider energy mix – have remained largely unchanged since surveying began in 2012. But O’Hara argues that the wider industry has failed to inform the public of the UK’s heritage in hydraulic fracturing.

‘Fracking isn’t new – we’ve been fracking in the North Sea for decades. And the UK has a long history of onshore extraction that people don’t know about, because it’s been relatively small-scale. But if you go to places like Gainsborough, you’ll see nodding donkeys,’ she says, referring to overground pumpjacks. O’Hara also notes that the anti-shale campaign has been using social media more effectively, and is vocal in their accusation of voices in support of shale as ‘being in the pay of businesses and industry, and there have been cases where people have been paid to influence the debate.’

The IOM3 Oil and Gas Division board has responded to the Nottingham survey results, noting that ‘it may be expected that public support decreases when energy prices decrease. Oil prices have more than halved since 2014, with the price of gas, coal, electricity and petrol and diesel also reducing,’ matching speculation from Professor Mathew Humphrey, School of Politics and International Relations and co-author of the Nottingham survey. The statement continued, ‘However, this needs to be set in a longer term context, where global demand for oil and gas is continually increasing as populations and living standards increase.’

Lights out

At the April 2016 Nuclear New Build Forum, Malcolm Grimston, Research Fellow at Imperial College London, UK, spoke of the need to persuade a public subsumed by a continuing legacy of anti-nuclear rhetoric and high-profile incidents of the value of nuclear, and it is hard to see how shale gas extraction, currently inextricably linked with fracking, can detach itself from the mounting negative and increasingly politicised discourse.

The Labour party has announced that it would oppose shale gas extraction via fracking, and the Scottish Parliament voted on a ban on fracking on July 2016 after support from Scottish Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats. Scottish Conservative Maurice Golden claimed that a ‘leftwing cabal’ was dismissing scientific evidence and economic and job creation opportunities.

However, O’Hara sees the UK’s worsening energy security as the greatest opportunity to persuade the public of the significance of shale. ‘We’ve known for the last few years that our energy supply is not as secure as we think. We’ve got power stations going out of commission, and nuclear that isn’t coming on as fast as we want. It’ll have to be something as drastic as the lights going out to make people realise.’