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The shifting sands of opinion on fracking

The blue half of our coalition government is keen to remind the populus that ‘We are all in this together,’ something the PM reminded us of this morning.

This time the improbable and frankly laughable catchphrase was tacked at random to a piece in today’s Daily Telegraph in which the PM has set out his support for hydrocarbon exploration in shale rock formations via hydraulic fracking.

To summarise, David Cameron believes the new domestic supply of energy has the potential to drive down energy bills, create up to 74,000 jobs, and return much needed money (one percent of shale gas revenues) to the very communities that host a successful drilling operation. A different take on this claim can be read in The Engineer here.

He reiterated the strict guidelines that drilling operators will have to adhere to, stressing that unsafe operations would be closed down. Concerns about the possible visual impacts of fracking operations were dismissed too, with a reminder that conventional oil and gas drilling has been taking place in South Downs National Park since the 1980s, adding that a fracking site would be no bigger than a cricket pitch.

Cameron concluded his piece in the Telegraph by saying, ‘My message to the country is clear – we cannot afford to miss out on fracking. For centuries, Britain has led the way in technological endeavour: an industrial revolution ahead of its time, many of the most vital scientific discoveries known to mankind, and a spirit of enterprise and innovation that has served us well down the decades. Fracking is part of this tradition, so let’s seize it.’

Stirring stuff for a Monday morning but a view not necessarily held in Balcombe where opponents to fracking are expected to ‘swoop’ this Friday on the west Sussex village for six days of activism and protest against Cuadrilla’s six week concession to drill for shale oil.

Led by No Dash for Gas, the Reclaim the Power camp will involve itself in ‘mass, audacious and creative acts of civil disobedience.’ More details can be found here.

In a statement, Sharon James of No Dash for Gas said, ‘We need to reclaim our energy system out of the hands of corporations that will frack our countryside, crash our climate targets and send fuel bills through the roof. We want democratically controlled, renewable energy. Our action will echo the local community in showing Cuadrilla that fracking is unwanted, unsafe and unnecessary.’

A popular perception of fracking operations revolves around earthquakes, increased greenhouse gas emissions and water contamination and people are understandably concerned about what they’ve seen and heard from the US.

However, the tide of public perception appears to be turning gradually in favour of shale exploration.

This is the conclusion of researchers at Nottingham University who’ve conducted six surveys in the UK via YouGov about public perceptions of shale gas extraction.

In total, 17,616 people took part in the surveys that began on March 18 2012 and concluded on July 2 2013. The research team was led by Prof Sarah O’Hara, School of Geography and Prof Mathew Humphrey, School of Politics and International Relations.

According to Nottingham University, the number of people who associate shale gas with being a ‘cheap fuel’ has risen from 40.5 per cent in the first survey to 55 per cent, with the positive rating for shale (the ‘do associate’ minus the ‘don’t associate’) standing at +33.4, up from +11.4 in the first survey.

They add that in the initial 2012 survey 25.3 per cent thought of shale gas as a clean energy source, compared with 44.8 per cent who did not make that association, giving a negative rating of -19.5. In the latest survey 33.5 per cent of people think of shale as clean, and 36.5 per cent believe the opposite, leaving a negative rating of -3.

In a statement Prof O’Hara said, ‘The trends toward increasing approval of shale have been remarkably consistent, amongst a public that is also increasingly able to identify shale gas from an initial question about ‘fracking’. The percentage of people able to identify shale gas from an opening question about hydraulic fracturing has risen from 37.6 per cent in the initial poll carried out in March 2012 to 62.2 per cent in the latest, July 2013 poll.

‘Shale gas may be seen as ‘cheap’, and therefore of appeal to people who see themselves as potential consumers, but do people believe it to be clean? Here the plurality is against shale, but again the trends are moving steadily in favour of shale gas.’

‘If we look at the expected impact of shale on greenhouse gas emissions we see similar trends. On this we should note that we have a very consistent plurality of ‘don’t knows’ of around 45-50 per cent, but amongst those who do express a view as to whether shale is good or bad for the atmosphere we have gone from a negative rating of -0.4 in June 2012…to a positive rating of 13.5 in July 2013.

‘On another ‘cleanliness’ issue, water contamination, we see negative ratings for shale but again the same trends. In March 2012, 44.5 per cent of respondents associate shale with water contamination and only 23.9 per cent did not. In July 2013 the respective figures were 35.2 per cent and 29.8 per cent. This gives a move in ratings, if we take water contamination to represent disapproval, from -20.6 to -5.4 in this period.’

Update #1: Wind preferred over shale

A new survey of over 2,000 adults suggests that the public, particularly the young, remain to be convinced about sources of energy derived from fracking.

The survey from the Attitudes to UK Industry poll showed 53 per cent in favour of wind farms despite the cosmetic effect on the landscape, while 15 per cent preferred fracking with the remainder undecided or without an opinion. Young people, aged 18-24 were said to be most resolute in support of wind energy with 60 per cent stating that preference.

Update #2: No overall majority for fracking

New research conducted for The Guardian by ICM shows that 44 per cent of the British public support fracking for shale gas, with 30 per cent opposed.

However, when asked whether they support fracking in their local area, as opposed to Britain in general, 41 per cent in were in favour and 40 per cent were opposed.

The nationwide telephone survey was conducted among 1,001 adults aged over 18 between August 9-11.

What do you think? Take part in our Fracking Poll on The Engineer’s homepage.


Readers' comments (19)

  • The UK is heavily dependent on gas. Fact! We will be for the foreseeable future. To not find out how much is there and how easily it can be obtained is to put us at a disadvantage to say the least and perhaps our children too as we become more and more dependent on Russia and Norway. I say proceed with caution.

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  • We can't use Nuclear power, we can't exploit fracking, the coal mining industry is no more; the alternatives? Offshore and onshore windfarms which cause untold damage to the environment in the sensitive areas they are built, like the highlands of Scotland. Their efficiency is at best questionable. How about wave power? Engineers are becoming increasingly skeptical about its viability. Imported energy is just such a stupid idea it beggars belief we have allowed it to grow as our domestic ability to produce energy has declined.

    If anything was going to cause earthquakes and water pollution it was the warren of coal mines we operated; it seemed acceptable to these people that a colliery occupied a site the size of a power station itself; and then there was transportation of that coal by road, sea and rail around the country. By comparison, shale gas is unbelievably efficient! And any industry that employs 75,000 people should be welcomed these days.

    It doesn't matter what we do in life, there are risks. Shale gas exploitation comes with managable risks, providing the operators are suitably qualified and monitored which often means large corporations with the money to invest in equipment and training to ensure compliance.

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  • Let us not forget which gov't was reknowned for the "dash for gas" syndrome when North Sea gas was coming on line. I do not believe we need to risk the relative stability of the geological conditions we have under the UK nor do we need to risk contaminating the water table (not a pipe, the whole lot) ! Think of the thousands of households who could be adversely affected. Think back to the gov't who "created" CJD by feeding animal-based feed to other animals, which in turn feed us. The politicians are only interested in getting re-elected next time. Not the long-term implications. So consider the long-term implications fellow Engineers and question their political decisions. Is your home going to be one of those adversely affected by the post-fracking cracks in the walls, mistaken for subsidence ? Is there really enough shale anything to make it economically viable ? Is it really going to create 74,000 jobs, or is this a smoke screen and a diversion tactic ? Or is this just another get rich quick scheme that panders to human greed ? I would urge all Engineers to look very carefully at the facts and the science and the methodology before coming to a decision.

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  • North sea gas didn't last long, shale gas won't last much longer. When it's gone it's gone. If we develop it as back up then it can provide some security, if we allow rapid exploitation then it will just line a few pockets and in a few years we'll be back where we started. Perhaps total privatisation wasn't such a good idea for his commodity.

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  • Natural gas also is a basic component of plastics. So cheaper gas means more manufacturing of other goods, and thus more union jobs, more tax revenue, and a better balance of trade against economic rivals.

    As for water contamination, most of the fear is false...made up by extremist environmentalists who believe shouting a lie long enough makes it true.

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  • We are told that shale gas will bring down the price of gas, so can anyone explain how something that is drilled for by international companies, sold on an international market, in a currency that isn't the pound, bring down the price of UK gas - which is sold to UK customers by international utility companies.

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  • @CG More supply = lower prices for gas and other substitutable fuels.

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  • The environmental extremists have cast a spell on the word "Fracking" in the USA. To be honest, hydraulic fracturing has been used for over 50 years now! Most prominent in the USA in the Texas/Oklahoma regions as well as the Rockies! For fifty years, have we ever heard of any problems in these regions!?

    I would guess that there are rogue companies in NY/PA region which have given "Fracking" the bad reputation. You do NOT have the Hallibuton/BakerHughes/Schlumberger "Big Three" as the perpetrating companies.

    I am not saying that Fracking is not dangerous. I am saying that Fracking accomplished by established Players might be a better approach in the UK. These Big Three are quite adept at the practice, are safety conscience, and even community conscience!

    As others have pointed out, natural gas exploration is required to give us the energy that we desire. Coal is out, wind/solar/wave technology is somewhat still in its infancy and will require a ton more to make a dent in our demands. (In fact, natural gas is required for most of these to function anyway with plastics/production/plant energy required.)

    There is not ONE solution to the energy story, there may need to be more than one technolgy to step up production. Natural gas reserves are NOT going away. Farcturing the wells, will most likely increase production yield and bring down costs to hopefully suplement these newer alternative techologies.

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  • Friends and employers have often told me that I'm a lateral thinker so how about this: energy is used by humans and pollution is caused by humans so why not reduce the number of humans? We need world-wide agreements on population control.

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  • Not exactly the province of engineers, though.

  • I live in an area of the East Midlands where some parts were devastated by coal mining subsidence. We don't want that again. Fracking, at depths of around 2000 mts, if below the stable clay layers, will not cause this devastation, and only test drilling will confirm the geology, so let it happen, everywhere.
    If the gas is available and extractable it is another energy source available very quickly.
    My concern is that should extraction take place it will be by overseas controlled companies who will take all the profits, pay little in tax and control the prices giving little if any benefit to the general public.
    Until this is addressed let the exploration take place but not the extraction, meanwhile continue developing the nuclear options.

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