Support for fracking has declined over the past decade and opposition has become more deeply entrenched, a new study of public attitudes in the UK has concluded.
The research, by academics at Exeter and Edinburgh universities, found that high awareness of shale gas, now about 80%, had not led to greater support for the process.
Trust in the shale gas industry has been very low and the debate about fracking had become increasingly polarized, the authors found. The more knowledgeable people were about fracking the more likely they were to hold stronger views, both for and against.
But while strong factions have become entrenched, the authors found, a significant minority of people remain undecided.
The study, by the ASSIST (Attitudes to Shale Gas in Space and Time) Project, examined four sets of national surveys carried out between 2012-2020. They included the government’s quarterly Wave Tracker, the most recent set of results of which were released today (see section below headed Latest government survey finds 34% oppose fracking). The researchers also used a multi-year survey for ASSIST. Unlike other surveys, this questioned the same people each time.
Opposition to fracking reached 66% in the second ASSIST national survey, carried out in July 2020, up from 56% in the first survey in April 2019. Between the two surveys, the UK government imposed a moratorium on fracking in England after a series of earthquakes induced by the process in Lancashire.
The ASSIST surveys found 32% supported fracking in April 2019, falling to 24% in July 2020. The latest BEIS study has similar proportion of supporters of fracking but a much smaller proportion of opponents (see section below headed Latest government survey finds 34% oppose fracking).
The researchers concluded:
“Opposition to shale gas exploration has increased steadily since 2014 while support has more or less steadily declined.
“However, the percentage of respondents who do not support or oppose the practice remained the same at 45%, suggesting that many in the public do not have a strong opinion on the issue, despite extensive media coverage of the issue.”
Very low trust in shale gas industry
The ASSIST national survey in 2019 found that just 12% of participants trusted the shale gas industry and less than half (42%) trusted government regulators, such as the Environment Agency or Oil & Gas Authority.
People were more likely to trust university scientists (59%) or the British Geological Survey (61%), the survey found.
The authors said:
“This suggests the public has very little faith in the shale gas industry, but also reflects that less than half of the public trust the government on this issue as well.”
They said lack of trust may have contributed to public scepticism about shale gas and be the result of concerns about whether decisions on shale gas were made fairly.
The authors recommended:
“Policymakers and industry operators can respond to these research findings by creating spaces for information sharing and collaborative decision-making with the public, particularly those in potentially impacted communities. This may increase perceptions of trust and a sense of fairness and justice in decision-making.”
Who supports and opposes?
People who express opposition to shale gas have strong environmental values and associate shale gas with water contamination, earthquakes, and increased greenhouse gas emissions, the study concluded.
People who express support for shale gas are more likely to be male, to vote for the Conservative Party, and to associate shale gas with clean energy, cheap energy and energy security.
The risk of earthquakes is one of the most prominent concerns about fracking in the UK, along with environmental degradation and a contribution to climate change, the study found.
Anti-shale gas discussion has focused on environmental risks, lack of trust in pro-shale actors, fairness, inclusion in the decision-making process, distribution of costs and benefits, local issues including lack of democratic opportunity for local decision making.
Discussion in favour of shale gas has focused on economic benefits, energy independence and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
But the researchers said the debate had moved beyond an argument of economics and energy security versus the environment and public health. Environmental reasons are increasingly cited by both supporters of shale gas and objectors.
Main sources of information
The 2019 ASSIST survey suggested that the main sources of information about fracking were environmental non-governmental organizations (48%), local or national television (44%), citizen action groups (40%) and broadsheet newspapers (36%).
Information about specific potential benefits of shale gas was not likely to lead to increased support, the study found.
The authors cautioned against drawing firm conclusions because of the different methodologies of the various public attitude studies.
They found that subtle differences in language could result in different results. But they concluded that the use of the term ‘fracking’ was no longer regarded as pejorative and had no impact on levels of public support.
What is still unknown or unclear?
The authors said more research was still needed on:
- How the media, political commentary, industry positions and anti-shale group communication affect public attitudes
- How much people rely on different outlets for information on shale gas
- How opinions on shale gas vary across the country
- How knowledge affects attitudes to fracking
- Which issues on fracking most resonate with the public
- Depth of public knowledge about fracking and how it could be increased
Latest government survey finds 34% oppose fracking
Publication of the ASSIST study coincided today with the most recent results of the quarterly Wave Tracker survey for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
This found that more than a third of participants (34%) opposed fracking, a quarter supported it and nearly a third (30%) neither supported nor opposed.
The survey, carried out in December 2020, is the most recent of three Wave Trackers conducted solely online because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The results cannot be compared with previous face-face Wave Trackers which have asked questions about shale gas since 2013.
In December 2020, support for shale gas was up one percentage point at 25% compared with the previous survey in September 2020. Opposition was down two points on the 36% recorded in the two previous surveys (June and September 2020).
The proportion of people who neither supported nor opposed fracking rose one percentage point in September 2020 and December 2020. People who said they did not know what they thought about the process returned to 10%, after a one-point rise in September 2020.
On reasons to oppose fracking, loss or destruction of the natural environment remained the largest, at 62%, followed by risk of earthquakes at 55%.
Concerns that fracking carried too much risk or uncertainty fell from 56% in September 2020 to 48% in December 2020. There was also a fall in the proportion who thought fracking was not a safe process (from 57% in September 2020 to 46% in December 2020). The argument that the UK should focus on developing renewable energy increased from 48% in September 2020 to 53% in December 2020.
The largest reason to support fracking was a need to use all available energy sources, at 56%, up from 52% in September. There was also an increase in the proportion who thought shale gas would reduce dependence on other fossil fuels (up to 48%, from 44% in September 2020). The proportion who said shale gas would have a positive impact on the UK economy fell from 50% in June to 43% in December.
BEIS reported that support for fracking was higher among men (33%, compared with 19% of women) and those in social grades AB (31%, compared with 20% in social grades DE). Opposition to fracking was highest among those with greater knowledge of it. Over four in ten (45%) of those who reported knowing either “a lot” or “a little” about fracking opposed it compared with 30% who supported it.
Awareness of fracking, at 88%, has also been steady since the online surveys started. One in ten (11%) said they knew a lot about it. Half said they knew a little. Just over one in ten (12%) had never heard of fracking.
BEIS said the people most likely to report some awareness of fracking in December 2020 were:
- men (93%, compared with 84% of women)
- older people (between 96% and 97% of those aged 55 and over, compared with 77% of those aged 16 to 24)
- people in social grades AB (93%, compared with 83% of those in social grades DE)
The Wave 36 survey was collected using the Kantar online omnibus with a representative sample of 4,022 people aged 16 and over in the UK from 3-8 December 2020.