The government will not win public support for fracking by behaving like a salesperson for the technique, a new study has concluded.
A paper from the Researching Fracking in Europe (ReFine) project found that ministers and policymakers had tried to persuade people to accept shale gas development by providing information about risks and potential benefits. But they had failed to address other issues that concerned the public.
The researchers said government and the public had different approaches to the way decisions should be made about fracking.
Policymakers and institutions took a technical approach, the researchers said. This was limited to promoting to the public an understanding of the risks and potential benefits.
The public was concerned about risk but it was also concerned about whether:
- Institutions involved in fracking could be trusted,
- Decisions were being made democratically
- Alternatives to fracking and worst-case scenarios had been considered sufficiently
The authors criticised the “monologue” approach to public engagement by the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil and they called for a wider, more open debate.
Focus groups in northern England
The study’s findings are based on six focus groups held with residents of northern England early 2013, before the anti-fracking protests at Balcombe in West Sussex.
The 42 participants were selected from special-interest and population groups.Two groups (allotment holders and former miners) were initially optimistic about the fracking. The other groups were mothers with young children, students, employees of Lancashire Wildlife Trust and members of an industrial history society.
Wary of benefits and trustworthiness of institutions
The study said focus group participants were wary of the promised benefits of fracking and felt they were “far from self-evident”. They were concerned that the UK was “sleep-walking” into fracking without considering alternatives or making decisions democratically. They were reluctant to trust government or industry and felt experts were naïve in the assumptions they made about society. Quoting statements by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the study said:
“Participants in this research frequently responded to current examples of policy discourse on fracking by suggesting that they felt they were being sold something”.
“It is important that policymakers avoid adopting the position of ‘salesperson’ for fracking”, the paper said. “‘Salespeople’ in a position of partisan advocacy are not likely to be viewed as legitimate arbiters.”
OUGO approach “problematic”
The study criticised as “problematic” the approach taken to public engagement by the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil. It was established by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2013 with an objective to promote public engagement. It defined this as ‘helping people understand the facts about unconventional gas and oil production and what it could mean if it takes place in their area’.
But the study said: “Public engagement (invited or uninvited) is as much about policy- makers learning about public issue definitions, competing visions of the future, and priorities, as it is about publics learning the facts.”
It said the language used by policymakers on fracking was based on the deficit model of science communication. This assumed public unease was caused by a lack of information and the best way to overcome it was to provide information on risks and benefits.
As a result, the study said, “the role prescribed for ‘local communities’ in processes of ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’ remains a largely passive one of receiving information”.
Instead, the authors recommend a dialogue between policymakers and the public, where both sides learn from the others’ point of view.
One of the authors, Professor Phil Macnaghten, of Wageningen University, said:
“A key lesson for policymakers is that whilst assessment of the risks and rewards is important, a much more open approach towards public engagement is needed to ensure that the debate is not confined to such limited scope. Only on this basis can a more inclusive approach to policymaking be achieved.”
The study also recommended the benefits of fracking were examined as rigorously as the risks and government should not use language that made people feel there was no choice.
- Framing ‘fracking’: Exploring public perceptions of hydraulic fracturing in the United Kingdom was published on 14th July 2015 in Public Understanding of Science. The authors are: Laurence Williams, Phil Macnaghten, Richard Davies and Sarah Curtis