Shale gas has, in the space of a few short years, gone from being a little known and little used energy resource to one that is mired in controversy, with arguments raging about the potential environmental impacts of its exploitation and use. Companies seeking to extract shale gas in the UK, using the technique of hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’), were recently compared, on a national newspaper website, to a ‘political cell threatening to poison our drinking water by setting off depth charges near subterranean fault lines’.
This ‘unconventional’ gas faces a rising swell of local environmental opposition, with grass roots activists arguing that fracking is polluting aquifers and surface water, endangering human and animal health, and triggering earthquakes in the areas being fracked. Moreover, there are concerns that – while natural gas produces only half of the greenhouse gas emissions of coal (although estimates of this figure vary considerably with respect to shale gas) – the emergence of this ‘new’ energy source will derail efforts to increase renewables, thus having a negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
With this level of media coverage, focusing on the detrimental environmental effects of the hydraulic fracturing process, we might expect there to be high levels of public awareness of shale gas operations in the UK, and for public opinion to be hostile to it. Is this so?
In a recent survey conducted by YouGov, we asked respondents if they could identify ‘a fossil fuel, found in sedimentary rock normally more than 1000 metres below ground. It is extracted using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”’. A mere 38% of respondents correctly identified this as shale gas from a list of real and imaginary fossil fuels. Around the same proportion (39%) were ‘don’t knows’, and 17% believed the fossil fuel was ‘coal’ – the next most popular choice after shale. Respondents living in Wales (43%) and the South of England (42%) were the most likely to identify shale gas with people living in London (31%) and the East of England (30%) being the least likely to identify the resource.
Of the people that correctly identified shale gas 59% stated that they associated explorations with earthquakes. ‘Contamination of ground water’ had a somewhat lower level of association, with 45% of people connecting it with fracking , the same percentage of people did not consider shale gas to be a ‘clean’ energy source. Of those who associate shale gas with water contamination, 66% also did not associate it with clean energy.
A plurality of respondents stated that they didn’t know what effect shale gas use would have on greenhouse gas levels, with an equal number of respondents thinking that it would either lower or increase them (27% in both cases).
Men (50%) were almost twice as likely as women (26%) to correctly identify shale gas. There was also a broad correlation between age and correct identification of shale gas with older people being more likely to provide a correct identification. Readers of the Financial Times (67%), the Telegraph (66%) and the Independent (63%) were most likely to identify shale gas while respondents that read the Sun (18%) and the Mirror/Daily Record (26%) were the least likely. Of these, readers of the Independent and the Mirror/Record were more likely to have negative views of shale gas than readers of The Sun and The Daily Telegraph.
What this data appears to show is that, whilst some commentators have suggested that backing shale gas will be a losing political strategy[i], public opinion on the question is as yet unformed or highly uncertain. There is a high percentage of ‘don’t knows’, and for those who can identify the issues, there is a broadly even split between those who view shale positively in terms of its environmental impacts, and those who view it negatively. In terms of ‘what the people think’ about shale gas, there is still everything to play for.
Note: Data collected by a YouGov Plc poll of 2,784 respondents between 18th and 20th March 2012.
Sarah O’Hara is Professor of Geography at the University of Nottingham
Mathew Humphrey is Reader in Political Philosophy, University of Nottingham
Marianna Poberezhskaya is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham
[i] Robert Newman ‘This is the Fracking Truth’ The Guardian 17/4/12 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/17/fracking-aquifers-tap-water?INTCMP=SRCH