Government support for fracking has made people less likely to believe that decisions about shale gas will be objective and independent, according to new research.
The study for the Department of Energy and Climate Change also found that the more people learned about shale gas, the more opposed they became.
Public engagement with shale gas and oil, by the social research consultancy TNS BMRB, was released on December 3rd, the day of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. It was commissioned by the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil in DECC to help shape both government policy on shale gas public consultation and industry community benefit schemes.
The conclusions are based on a series of discussion sessions held with a total of 71 members of the public in February and March 2014 in Winchester, Northampton and Liverpool. The authors said that before the sessions began participants tended to be neutral about shale gas and had little awareness of the risks associated with it.
Important decisions already taken
The research found that participants had a reduced confidence in shale gas decision-making and a feeling that people could not influence outcomes. The authors concluded:
“The Government’s commitment to shale development, and the fact licences had been granted, reduced confidence that decision-making bodies would be objective or have scope to make independent decisions, despite information suggesting otherwise”.
Many participants questioned the impartiality of bodies taking decisions and their ability to act in the face of perceived vested interests, the authors said.
One participant at a discussion in Winchester said:
“They should say ‘we’ve considered other sources and why they are not viable’, because at the moment it’s a fait accompli, ‘you are going to do this’”.
Another, in Northampton, said:
“My biggest concern is that the decision has already been made to go ahead with it…We don’t know what the risks are… there is no operation in place where we can look at the long term effects over 20 years.”
Participants regarded shale as “an unknown” and therefore higher risk, the authors said. But, as the discussion sessions continued, opposition increased, the study found.
“Many participants were prone to become more negative as the dialogue progressed, either in response to information, or as result of a lack of information contradicting their assumptions.”
One participant at a session in Northampton said:
“The more I have learnt about it, the more I am against it.”
Participants started to question the benefits of shale, become concerned about risks and doubt the effectiveness of regulation, the authors said.
The research also found that participants who were predisposed to oppose shale were most receptive to information that confirmed their ideas.
Participants in the study also felt:
- The risks of shale gas had been overlooked
- The offer of money to affected communities was “akin to bribes”
- Shale gas processes and regulations were complex
- It would be difficult for the public to be involved effectively in shale gas decisions
A participant at a discussion in Northampton said:
“[The regulatory roadmap] means nothing to me. It just looks like a load of fancy names and letters.”
Credible impartial information
The authors said participants wanted information from credible, impartial and trustworthy sources.
“The most trusted messengers were those most likely to have a clear understanding of the issues, and to be honest about them. Non-biased experts deemed most suitable for this role included academics, scientists, and regulatory bodies”.
Participants believed independent experts, including academics, should help to bolster public understanding but also challenge questionable claims.
Engagement improves decision-making
The authors said pubic engagement, when done properly, could lead to better decision-making and increased levels of trust. The findings of the research should guide policymakers and industry in the months and years ahead, they said.
Public engagement should as inclusive as possible, the authors said. Government and industry should directly address public concerns about shale.
“They should be clear about what is known about shale gas and what is not; what the public can influence, and what they cannot; as well as about operations, regulatory decisions and progress”.
The public should be helped to influence decision-making and be given time to come to an opinion, the authors added.
“We no longer live in an age when it is legitimate for organisations to ‘Decide-Announce-Defend’ proposals to develop controversial energy technologies.”
“Nor is it acceptable to brand objectors as ‘NIMBYs’ (Not In My Back Yard) that can be discredited, ignored or discounted from public debate”.