Public shale gas controversies in Europe: the case of United Kingdom

Public controversies around shale gas exploration in Europe: the United Kingdom

We tend to perceive shale gas developments in Poland as something exceptional. We believe that our potential shale gas resources are exceptional comparing to other countries, as is shale gas importance for Poland's economy and energy security. Equally unusual seem to us public reactions to shale gas projects, especially those adverse ones.

Mass media tend to show Żurawlow protests as a case of ignorance and inability to understand potential benefits from shale gas production to Poland and the municipalities located in concession areas. In order to demonstrate that shale gas developments in Poland are not unusual, let's see what happens in other EU countries. Like Poland, United Kingdom considers shale gas as a great business opportunity and saw a wave of local protests with much more impact than those in Żurawlow.

UK Government and the shales

The UK Government perceives the development of shale gas and oil sector as a great opportunity for the British economy. In 2010, British Geological Survey (BGS) estimated UK shale gas resources at  150 bcm. Gas accumulations occur in Lancashire (Northwest England),  Hampshire, Berkshire, Survey, Sussex and Kent (South England), as well as in Central Scotland and Wales.

Exploration projects are still at an early stage of development, but UK companies plan to  drill up to 40 wells in the next three years. The shale gas sector has attracted a number of domestic companies that announced the intent drill shale gas wells: Cuadrilla Resources, IGas, Celtic, Dart Energy, Egdon Resources. The beginning of commercial shale gas production is slated for 2016.

The Government actively promotes shale oil and gas. At Davos Economic Forum held in January 2014, prime minister David Cameron said that United Kingdom needs to explore the opportunity represented by shale gas. UK Minister for Climate Change believes shale gas in more climate-friendly than coal due to lower carbon emissions at energy generation. UK Energy and Climate Change Ministry expects economic growth and new jobs. Spokesman for the Ministry announced that the Government promotes safe shale gas production in an environment-friendly manner. Shale gas is seen as an opportunity for enhancing UK energy security and development of production technology that domestic companies may export abroad in the future.

UK Government's green light to potential investors still to be perceived by the entire UK society. Public support to shale gas production has been consistently on the rise from June 2012 to July 2013. In June of 2013, over 58% of the UK residents supported shale gas production, whereas only 18% of the were against.

However, a wave of anti-fracking protests reversed that tendency in the second half of 2013. According to surveys made in September 2013, shale gas support rate fell to 55% and further to 53% in January 2014, while those opposing were on the rise: to 24% in September 2013 and as much as 27% in January 2014.

In her press release Sarah O’Hara, Professor of Geography at Nottingham University which commissioned the survey, announced that the trend has been reversed for a long time. The Government must take account of shale gas opponents' arguments and influence, as they attract mass media's attention and support from various organisations.

Protests, fears, benefits

Since the lifting of moratorium on shale gas production in the United Kingdom in December 2012, the protests in Balcombe (West Sussex) in August 2013 have had the strongest negative impact on public opinion. Several thousands of people marched in protest against fracturing operations of Cuadrilla Company. More than ten of them were arrested, including Caroline Lucas, a green party activist.

Similar protests were organized in other UK locations. Shale gas protesters set up tents and have blocked a motorway for months in the proximity of wells being drilled by IGas Company in Barton Moss at Salford. In March 2014, local community blocked a well in Daneshill (Nottinghamshire). The protesters fear water contamination, adverse effects of gas on the climate change and heavy transport impact on local villages. Shale gas opponents attract media's attention with fancy clothes and slogans. They have an advantage over the supporters who are still to devise a good way to promote shale gas production.

In January 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron offered additional financial benefits to the local communities. In exchange for support to shale gas production in their jurisdictions, local councils would retain 100% of the shale tax receipts, rather than regular 50%. Moreover, the extractive industry promised local communities 100,000 pounds for each fracturing procedure in exploratory wells and 1% of the profit following shale gas discovery.

Environmental organisations accused the government of an attempt to bribe the local communities or to offer them a compensation for the proximity of the drilling wells. According to public opinion poll by Nottingham University, 57% of those interviewed consider the proposed compensation as a “bribery”. Only 14% of them consider it a legitimate bonus to the local authorities, while 40 % of them believe this is a compensation for adverse fracturing effects on the local communities.

In an interview granted to BBC, Lawrence Carter of Greenpeace has commented that financial shale gas bonuses to the local councils failed to bring about the intended results. On the contrary, British society becomes increasingly skeptical. According to Carter, it is high time to listen to the voices raised by local communities and stop the attempts to industrialize and pollute the British country with the risk-prone hydraulic fracturing technology. He believes that investments should go to renewable sources of energy and thermal upgrades of houses in order to cut on energy consumption. Low thermal efficiency of residential buildings, related high heating costs and a significant rate of the so-called energy poverty, is a pressing issue in the United Kingdom.

Despite the growing negative emotions that surround the shale gas, a significant decrease in the number of those linking earthquake occurrence to shale gas production was reported by researchers from Nottingham University. In January 2014, almost 50 % of those interviewed opted for that link, comparing to approx. 70% in December 2012. Earthquake concerns are higher among the British than water pollution concerns (the latter are expressed by 45% of those interviewed), due to the earthquake that took place near Blackpool in 2011. Cuadrilla Company that performed hydraulic fracturing operation in that region was immediately accused of causing the earthquake.

About 30% of the respondents believe that shale gas is a clean fuel and 50% of them consider shale gas as an affordable fuel. For comparison, only 40% of the respondents shared that view in May 2012. Obviously, not only shale gas opponents have an effect on the public opinion.

UK press media and the shale gas

The UK press media are divided into shale gas proponents  and opponents (mainly conservative and left-wing press, respectively).

Brigitte Nerlich, Nottingham University Professor, has analyzed UK media for the way they portray shale gas and hydraulic fracturing. Most of the articles were published following the Balcombe protests of August 2013. Other events covered by press media are:

  • minor earthquake near Blackpool (April/May 2011),
  • Cuadrilla-commissioned report that confirmed the link between hydraulic fracturing and seismic activity in Lancashire (November 2011),
  • report commissioned by the UK Government that recommended the use of hydraulic fracturing.

According to Professor Nerlich, the analyzed press media focus on different topics. Left-wing Guardian and Independent published a lot on the Gasland movie and various environmental risk, such as water and soil contamination, shale gas impact on climate change and earthquake risks. Health risks (e.g. cancer incidence) and overall significant uncertainty associated with shale gas production were other frequently commented issues. The Guardian and Independent argue that hydraulic fracturing permissions are reckless and shale gas should not divert the attention from investment in renewable sources of energy. On the other hand, the conservative Daily Telegraph and the Times focused on shale gas as a new source of energy that may help to “address” the climate change problem.

Shale gas is a transitional fuel that means benefits to the entire nation and changes the rules of play globally. Conservative press media highlighted shale gas importance to national energy security. Daily Telegraph oraz The Times call for investing in shale gas production which should not fall victim of the green lobby and treat the ban on hydraulic fracturing as an irresponsible measure.

Conclusions for Poland

It is difficult to predict today in the UK public attitudes to shale gas in the future. A press media analysis revealed that proponents and opponents are divided along broader lines of right- and left-wing beliefs. The government is lobbying for the shale gas and proposes various benefits to the local communities, but the opponents are supported by non-government organisations and their own websites.

A lot will depend on actual performance of investors and on the determination of environmental activists who want to prevent hydraulic fracturing in the UK.

Local protests in Poland have not been so much publicized as the British ones, but local communities should be treated seriously by investors and the government alike. The case of UK demonstrates that financial promises are unlikely to convince everyone and minimize concerns about environmental and health effects of hydraulic fracturing. Therefore, a sustained dialogue with the communities and environmentalists seem to be a better approach.

author: dr Aleksandra Lis, Instytut Sobieskiego, UAM

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