Debate: What drives local opposition to fracking?

2nd March 2014

As the shale gas industry acknowledges that local antagonism may its biggest challenge, guest writer Paul Seaman looks at what drives opposition and how the companies respond.

A recent survey on attitudes in oil and gas companies found that 55% of the industry believed local opposition and what it called “nimbyism” were the greatest challenge to the exploitation of shale gas.

The term NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) is frequently used by project developers to describe local protestors. NIMBYs are seen by developers as selfish, unwilling to think about the national interest, irrational, emotional, unable to grasp complex technical and engineering issues and difficult to communicate with.

Faced with what they see as NIMBY-inspired opposition, companies often resort to three tactics:

  • Run information sessions.
    This assumes that once people are better informed, they will be more likely to accept the proposals
  • Talk down the impact
    They argue that the site will be unnoticeable, or promise to plant trees round it
  • Appeal to self-interest
    Make a payment to the local community as a recompense for any inconvenience

These tactics have all been tried by onshore oil and gas exploration companies in the UK, but local opposition to their activities continues.

Patrick Devine-Wright, of Exeter University, has researched conflicts over the siting of energy projects. He believes there are two key factors which drive local opposition.

The first is procedural justice. If people feel that the decision-making process is unfair or their concerns are not being listened to, then they will object.

Tina Rothery of Residents’ Action on Fylde Fracking explained her feelings on fracking in the Blackpool area to a House of Lords Select Committee:

“…our group have spent two years writing to politicians, lobbying our MPs and councillors, not doing the bad stuff; not doing the standing on the roadside or blocking trucks. For all we have done and all the petitions we have done, if it was not for the earthquakes this would have been proceeding by now. … We are concerned that because they [Cuadrilla] did not address groups like ours over the last two years honestly, and that we caught them out with the ASA [Advertising Standards Authority] and various other things where they were being dishonest with us, that is what the industry has brought upon itself: that communities will then seek to protect themselves.”

The second factor driving local opposition is place attachment – the bonds that develop between individuals and communities and the particular landscapes in which they live. “This is an emotional connection”, says Patrick Devine Wright. “It’s not just about how people feel, but it’s also about how they define who they are – their sense of identity.”

Fracking, with its potential threats to the landscape and the water beneath it, is likely to be seen by many as a threat to their place, their landscape, their very identity.

Here’s how the No Fracking in Balcombe society described the issue last summer.

“We thank those who have come from outside the village to help defend our countryside, our air and water quality, and our right to a peaceful existence on tanker-free country roads.  We stand united with friends similarly besieged elsewhere in the country, especially in the North West, on that other front line of the fracking war. We in Balcombe feel bullied. Bullied by the oil and gas industry. Bullied by our government. We stand strong in the fight against this dangerous and misguided government policy.”

These two powerful drivers may explain why campaigners in Sussex and the north west of England have been motivated to devote considerable time and energy to the fracking issue. They have become formidable opponents and companies that dismiss them as Nimbys may be seriously underestimating their expertise and determination to block the industry in any way they can.

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