Campaigners for and against fracking are failing to deliver a decisive blow to their opponents, according to a new study.
Researchers at Sussex University conclude that the shale gas debate remains deadlocked. A clear victory for either side looks unlikely because arguments used are “often theoretical and easily undermined”.
They found that the case about impacts – both negative and positive – tends to be extrapolated from the United States and the relevance to the UK is easily questioned by opponents.
The UK government has struggled to counter claims of poor governance of the shale gas industry, the study concluded. And attempts to portray shale gas as an environmentally-friendly “bridge fuel” to a low carbon economy appeared to have little traction beyond government and the industry.
According to the research, any shift in the debate is likely to come either from a sudden event – such as a change of government or an incident at an exploration site – or from a more gradual loss of enthusiasm by either side.
Pro and anti views about shale gas
The study, by the Science Policy Research Unit, identified the key views on fracking that it says have dominated the policy debate.
Interviews with 30 stakeholders and analysis of 1,557 documents revealed four views in favour and five against the prospects for a UK shale gas industry.
Over the time-frame studied (2010-2018), the researchers found that pro-shale views were more frequently used. They comprised:
- ‘Low impact development’. Shale gas produces only “mundane nuisance impacts” which will not amount to industrialisation of the countryside
- ‘Lower carbon fuel’. A domestic shale gas industry is compatible with – if not a positive contribution towards – meeting the UK climate change targets
- ‘Manageable risk’. The risks of fracking are manageable and the UK has world-leading regulation.
- ‘Wealth and security’. UK shale gas resources are an opportunity for potentially substantial economic and energy security benefits.
Anti-shale gas views were used less frequently but were still widespread, the study said. They comprised:
- ‘Bad gas governance’. Shale gas developments are being imposed on unwilling local communities by a central government that is behaving questionably.
- ‘Dirty fossil fuel’. The development of a domestic shale gas industry is irreconcilable with the UK’s climate change targets.
- ‘Elusive threats’. Fracking is seen as novel, highly risky and uncertain. Accidents are seen as inevitable because of perceived inadequate regulation and under-funded regulators.
- ‘Industrialise the countryside’. Shale gas development is seen as industrialising the British countryside
- ‘No repeat revolution’. Scepticism about the prospects of a UK industry. This includes doubts about a reduction in gas prices and scepticism over the emergence of an industry of any significance at all.
Lead author, Dr Laurence Williams, said:
“Our study demonstrates the key issues over which the UK shale policy debate has been fought, as well as the ways policy-makers and other stakeholders have tried to bring the public round to their way of thinking.
“We confirm previous research findings about the importance of arguments about governance and local community influence over decision-making in anti-shale discourse, and add that debate over whether shale gas development will industrialise the countryside seems particularly prominent in the UK.”
Co-author, Professor Benjamin K. Sovacool, said:
“Our research underscores how contested emerging energy options such as shale-gas are, and how uncertain their future will remain.
“It ultimately implies that progress on meeting future energy targets—especially those that involve fossil fuels—will be a combination of unpredictable, debatable, and political.”
- The study, funded by the Natural Environment and Economic and Social Research Councils, has been written up in the paper The discursive politics of ‘fracking’: Frames, storylines, and the anticipatory contestation of shale gas development in the United Kingdom. This will appear in the September 2019 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Global Environmental Change. The abstract can also be read here