“Shale gas is the new nuclear” – “Balcombe was the turning point”

Shale gas needs a rapid makeover because to the public it has become the new nuclear, according to the head of an ongoing-survey of attitudes to fracking.

Professor Sarah O’Hara, of Nottingham University, told an industry conference yesterday that the turning point, when opposition began to grow to fracking, was the Balcombe protest in summer 2013.

For people who took part in the survey, she said, shale gas had become the least acceptable form of energy, even though support for conventional gas stood at 70-80%.

Professor O’Hara said: “Shale gas has become the new nuclear. It is going to be quite a job, I think, changing some of the opinions that have been formed because that is how people are seeing it.

“There is an issue with shale gas for the British public. It needs a makeover very, very quickly.”

Professor Sarah O'Hara and colleague, Professor Mat Humphrey

Professor Sarah O’Hara and colleague, Professor Mat Humphrey

Nottingham University has been tracking public opinion about fracking and shale gas since March 2012. Recent surveys have interviewed more than 3,000 people. Up to July 2013, survey participants appeared to be warming towards shale gas and opposition was falling.

Professor O’Hara said: “Balcombe is the turning-point. We think you have a long way to come back after Balcombe because they [the protests] did quite a bit of damage in a very small way that is beginning to build.”

Her colleague at Nottingham, Professor Mat Humphrey, said: “After July 2013 all the indicators that were moving in favour of shale gas in public perception then turned down, every single one. It is a remarkably consistent picture.”

He said: “The main theme of the Balcombe protest was about water contamination”. In the most recent survey, in September 2014, water contamination was the issue that most people were most concerned about.

He told the conference: “Managing the politics of this is about addressing people’s concerns, above all, about water contamination.”

Professor Humphrey said up to July 2013, readers of the Guardian and Independent (most likely to oppose shale gas) were becoming more uncertain about shale gas.

“At the time when public opinion is moving in favour, the resistance of the Guardian and Independent readers is beginning to crumble a bit”, he said.

Post-Balcombe the trend reversed. Among Guardian and Independent readers, those that said “Don’t know” to shale fell to below 20% and opponents of shale rose to 50%. What is unusual, Professor Humphrey said, is that this remained consistent. The same pattern happened among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.

Balcombe turning point: opposition to shale rises at the time of the Balcombe protests in July 2013

Balcombe turning point: opposition to shale rises at the time of the Balcombe protests in July 2013

“Suddenly these people, they know what to think now”, he said. “They know that it [shale] is bad and they keep thinking it is bad all the way up to September 2014.

“For a change in public opinion, this is a long, long time for a change to be sustained. It all tends to suggest that the key thing with Balcombe is about timing.”

So why was Balcombe apparently so powerful? Professor Humphrey said: “It was happening at a time when public opinion is actually settling around this new technology that people are not familiar with before”. There was no accepted public opinion that could be returned to.

He said anti-shale campaign groups believed Balcombe had been hugely effective. “It led to a long-term change in public opinion. They think this is an effective kind of politics. This kind of political mobilisation worked.”

“Balcombe has shown what can be done; it has paved the way for other groups to come together to organise and to resist” (quote from campaigner at Barton Moss)

“I think [Balcombe] was a catalyst to making this work” (quote from campaigner at Barton Moss)

“[Balcombe] was an empowered community” (quote from campaigner at Upton)

Asked by delegates how the shale industry could change people’s minds to support fracking, Professor Humphrey said: “It is not just about giving people information.

“People will believe what they chose to believe as long as having those beliefs is not terribly costly for them.

“People can, broadly speaking, believe what they want to believe about shale gas and they are very unlikely to make any difference to the actual outcome in terms of defining policy.

“Information is not a panacea.”

  • Professor O’Hara and Professor Humphrey were talking at the UK Shale Gas summit, orgaised by the Instituion of Mechanical Engineers. Our other reports from the summit:

Cuadrilla banks on low returns of flowback fluid from Lancashire wells

“Lip-licking” volumes of shale gas in UK – but no full-scale production likely before 2020 – IGas

Public acceptance for oil and gas is absolutely vital – Ken Cronin

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