The shifting sands of opinion on fracking

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While the Prime Minister trots out his ‘all in this together’ mantra over shale gas, opinions on hydraulic fracturing technologies are still evolving

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.