How to talk about shale gas?

Shale gas exploration/production carries various consequences to all stakeholders. A real revolution is likely to happen on the level of municipalities and districts (poviats). Therefore, it is understandable that those living in shale gas exploration areas are primarily interested in project impact on their life – what benefits, nuisances, damage or risks are likely to occur. Consequently, the discussion on shale gas becomes a discussion of the future of the local community. What is the role of information provided by the investor, local/central government authorities and other public institutions?

Residents themselves look for information

As a general rule, those residents who take an interest in local affairs actively seek information on their own long before an introductory meeting is held. Accordingly, residents share the knowledge they have collected and their conjectures before receiving formal professional information – they are not a “blank slate”.

Normally, at some point the representatives of the investor or of public institutions, such as environmental protection directorates or mining authorities, enter the scene to provide key information to those living in the proximity of the planned drilling location. To this end, a local information meeting is held. Obviously, these meetings are necessary and expected by the parties involved, but quite often they are a source of frustration to the parties, by deepening mutual distrust and animosity, rather than building a relationship that is based on respect and openness.

What should be done to avoid that situation?

Lesson learned in the past: from expert's assessment to a partner relationship

Some hints on what should be done in the beginning can be found in a paper by Baruch Fischhoff ”Risk Perception and Communication Unplugged: Twenty Years of Process”, published by scientific journal “Risk Analysis” in 1995. The author has described eight stages that communication experts pass through in risk situations, learning lessons from their mistakes.

Usually, they start with a belief that expert knowledge should suffice to deliver the process smoothly and end with the conviction that partner relations with the community are of key importance. Transfer of information turns into dialogue. Importantly, the achievement of “partner relations” does not override all of the previous steps: instead, they are essential to build partner relations!

The eight stages of communication in a risk situation are:

  1. All we have to do is get the numbers right
  2. All we have to do is tell them the numbers
  3. All we have to do is explain what we mean by the numbers
  4. All we have to do is show them that they have accepted similar risks in the past
  5. All we have to do is show them that it's a good deal for them
  6. All we have to do is treat them nicely
  7. All we have to do is make them partners
  8. All of the above!

Source: B. Fischholff (1995) Risk Perception and Communication Unplugged: Twenty Years of Process, Risk Analysis 15 (2), p. 138.

What should be told?

At initial stages of communication with the residents, experts believe that risk should not be mentioned as long as its level is acceptable. Instead, they tend to focus on proper risk definition and control. By and large, risk is inherent to all industrial operations and our everyday routines – in principle, rather than talking about the risk we just take steps to protects us against them.

Therefore, they say nothing about that, while the residents may have the impression that they want to conceal some important facts. Instead of appeasing the tension, discussing potential impacts from the project often compounds the misunderstandings. Those who are not specialists tend to interpret numbers in a different way and focus on issues and aspects which experts consider to be of minor importance. Experts believe then they were right – they shouldn't talk that much!

A proper preparation of meetings by the hosts may help to minimize the misunderstandings; it is important to focus on facts and numbers that are crucial from target audience's perspective (not necessarily the most convenient to the host!). A lesson learned from public shale gas meetings that have been held in Poland in the past several years is that people are interested in the details of local operations (exact drilling location, water abstraction details, waste treatment, contingency planning or compensation for damage, if any) rather than in overall geology or production technology matters.

Accordingly, starting a meeting with several hour-long presentations of reservoir geology and history of gas production in the United States is not the best recipe for a successful meeting, especially that more active residents have learned that from the Internet. Instead, it is better to first ask the audience about the kind of information they are most interested in. It may happen that technology details are vital for a particular group that based on that knowledge will propose, for example, a civic monitoring of the operations according to rules established jointly with the exploration company. However, any projects of this kind must be based on regular cooperation, rather than one-off meetings.

Not only technology: benefits, risks and municipality's future

Those in charge of public discourse with local communities are invariably asked about the risk and their answer is often tantamount to an assurance that in principle there no risks at all. Experts tend to fear that the residents are unable to accept the risk. As we are all aware that even daily routines, such as a bus trip, involve a certain degree of risk, a sudden assurance that a specific activity is free of any risk may give rise to suspicions of incompetence or that some important facts are being concealed.

On the other hand, a certain reluctance to the risk is understandable: there are no reasons accepting a risk that does not involve any benefits. I agree to risk a car crash because I want to ride, to break my leg when skiing downhill because I want to have fun. At the same time the awareness of a potential accident motivates me to fasten my safety belt, wear a helmet and buy insurance, but does not keep me at home.

The issue is more complex if the decisions are not made on one's own behalf but apply to the entire community. As a consequence, any discussion on technology that enters the local community will sooner or later focus on potential benefits to the community and its individual members. At this point it is important to stick to the facts and resist the temptation to “promise the moon”. The issue of benefits to “this specific municipality” that offset any potential nuisances or risks, should be well-thought in advance.

Talking to the audience about matters that interest them and in a manner that is understandable and acceptable to them is considered as an expression of respect. This aspect can be hardly overestimated. As Fischhoff put it: “People want to be treated with respect (…). That desire is, in part, a matter of taste, and, in part, a matter of power. People fear that those who disrespect them are also defranchising them”.

A good start of the dialogue is not just a matter of socio-technical skills (albeit efficient communication skills are welcome). It is essential to think the situation over from the viewpoint of the audience. Considering the audience  from the beginning as competent and reasonable discussion partners, as an expression of respect, will yield the best results.

Respect-based relationship – ”shale gas revolution” in every municipality

With time, specialists come to the conclusion that it is relationship development, rather than information transfer, that matters. Both parties have to learn a lot about each other, if they want to establish an efficient cooperation. The residents learn what they might expect from the application of specific technologies and what they might expect from the experts at the meeting – do they treat them seriously? Are they able to dispel any doubt and do they know how to handle any questions  they are unable to answer? On the other hand, the experts learn which project aspects are most controversial in a particular community. These may include matters they didn't take into account as they considered them of minor importance. They learn how to transfer information so as to dispel obvious misunderstandings and make the meeting a starting point for cooperation.

According to Fischhoff, building partner risk management relationships with non-specialist yields the best effects. He argues that a platform should be established so that residents are able to play a role other than just saying “I don't trust you” or “you are lying”; expect more than just passive acquiescence.

Experts may complain about manipulation allegations, but they themselves may be reluctant to perceive the residents as quality partners. Notably, information provided by the residents may help to minimize project impact on the environment and local community, their vigilant eyes may help to ensure strict compliance with laws and regulations. This will require decisions on establishing cooperation, but first it is essential to overcome the prejudices that divide “greedy capitalists”, “lazy bureaucrats” and “stupid farmers”.

A success in this area will mean a real “shale gas revolution” that every municipality should be wished.

author: Agata Stasik

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