British public still undecided on fracking

Dr Nick Nash

In this week’s interview we talk to Dr Nick Nash, from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, about the public perception of shale gas within the UK and how the industry might best approach the task of convincing the public that shale gas is safe and beneficial.

Monica Thomas (Shale Gas International): I would like to talk about the research paper on “UK Public Perceptions of Shale Gas”. Can you tell us how this came about?

Dr Nick Nash (Cardiff University): We were led to do this research partly through the impact of The Royal Society’s finding concerning the need to understand UK public perceptions of shale gas extraction and other technologies which are still quite poorly understood, as it turns out, by a lot of UK public.

We also need to look at these issues because it’s a backdrop to what’s been referred to as “the energy trilemma”: the need to guarantee a secure supply of energy, the need to ensure the affordability of energy, and the need to meet increasing environmental targets – all of which are putting pressure on the energy industry and creating a need for change both within the industries and also by the people who use these energies in their own homes.

We essentially wanted to find out what people perceived to be the risks of shale gas and other energy sources and how they were held differently by different sections of the public. Then we also wanted to look at how messages about shale gas might influence people’s perceptions.

MT: So, when it comes to shale, how high is the level of awareness? How much do people know and understand about the process of extraction, and what shale exploration involves?

NN: It depends on the wording, I guess. The term ‘fracking’ is a term people are far more familiar with and it is pretty much the nom de plume for the technology. You find very few people using terms such as ‘shale gas’, ‘hydraulic fracturing’. ‘Fracking’ trips of the tongue a bit more, but whenever it’s been portrayed in the media it’s been worded in that way, so people pick it up and use what they hear.

But in terms of how many people have heard of shale in a non-semantic sense, looking broadly at shale attitudes from what we’ve got from public perception literature, you find that because it is often in the media, and it’s an unconventional energy source, that more people have heard of it compared with other unconventional sources such as carbon capture and storage, and coal gasification, etc.

Although people have heard of it, it’s been mostly in relation to opposition from environmental groups and media coverage. So while most people are aware – I think that in the DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) study they found that around 74 percent of the British public have heard of it – there was considerable ambivalence. About half of the respondents neither opposed nor supported shale gas, a quarter were more supportive and the remaining quarter were opposed.

So high awareness and high ambivalence.

MT: That is something that I found very interesting in your research, but this is not what the environmentalists would like us to believe. They would have us believe that the British public is unequivocally against shale.
Would you say that these finding indicate that the battle over public perceptions on shale hasn’t been lost yet, contrary to what the environmentalists say, since half of the British public is still undecided?

NN: I think as far as the industry goes, and as far our recent research has found, there is considerable ambivalence in people’s perceptions of shale gas. And it does present an opportunity for the industry to try and engage with public groups. And I say ‘public groups’ rather than ‘the public’ because something else that the research has highlighted is that depending on the background of the audience, it can dictate to a fairly significant degree how receptive they are to particular arguments.

As you have said, this is a rhetorical battle ground. The shale industry is a relatively new one. People are more comfortable with more conventional fossil fuels – they are the ones people know, the ones they grew up with, and there is a kind of biographical understanding along the lines of “we had coal in our house” or “we have central heating”. Those kind of biographical details feed into people’s perceptions.

So what you find is that there was quite a lot of media coverage of shale gas which has at times portrayed it in a fairly negative way and – as you would expect – you had environmental groups, who also put a particular perspective on the issue surrounding shale gas in a way that gets people to oppose it.

Going back to our research, the fact that we have found some evidence of ambivalence amongst the British public, gives the industry ample opportunity to engage. Because what you find in psychology is that once people’s attitudes and perceptions have formed, they are very difficult to change. It is always better to engage early and try to put arguments for shale gas now, rather than leaving it until a later date.

Because the environmental lobby is quite strong, once one side gets into people’s heads it is quite difficult to counteract that.

MT: What are the main concerns that people have when it comes to shale extraction? Would that be water contamination or earth tremors or something like the impact on the house prices?

NN: In the UK, at least, what you find is that the concerns are predominately to do with water contamination, whereas the issue of induced seismicity – that’s been found to be declining in the public perceptions of risks associated with shale gas.

Going back to what I said about the ambivalence, you have those factors on the once side, but you also have more people seeing shale gas as a cheap form of energy. And some recent research has suggested that that’s maybe where the ambivalence comes from, the associated risks on the one hand and the economic benefit on the other.