In a recent Daily Telegraph column, David Cameron says that ‘Fracking has become a national debate in Britain – and it’s one that I’m determined to win’. He means ‘win’, of course, in the sense of getting approval for the extraction of shale gas in the UK through the use of the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’.
The latest findings from the University of Nottingham’s team looking at public perceptions of shale gas show that, despite warnings about earthquakes, water contamination, and increasing carbon emissions, the UK public increasingly approve of the exploitation of shale gas as an energy source. Over a sixteen month period of regular surveys, the public is both becoming more knowledgeable about, and more positive towards, shale. The percentage of people able to identify shale gas from an opening question about hydraulic fracturing has risen from 37.6% in the initial poll carried out in March 2012 to 62.2% in the latest, July 2013 poll.
One of the potentially attractive features of shale gas is that, compared with other sources of energy such as renewables, it may be seen as cheap at the point of sale. The number of people who associate shale gas with being a ‘cheap fuel’ has risen from 40.5% in the first survey to 55% now, and the positive rating for shale (the ‘do associate’ minus the ‘don’t associate’) is +33.4, up from +11.4 in the first survey, and steadily rising throughout the period.
So, shale gas may be seen as ‘cheap’, and therefore of appeal to people who see themselves as potential consumers, but do people believe it to be clean? Here the plurality is still against shale, but the trends are moving steadily in favour of shale gas. In the initial 2012 survey only 25.3% thought of this as a clean energy source, compared with 44.8 who did not, giving a negative rating of -19.5. In the latest survey a third (33.5%) of people think of shale as clean, and 36.5% believe the opposite, leaving an negative rating of only -3. We see the same if we look at the expected impact of shale on greenhouse gas emissions. We have a very consistent plurality of ‘don’t knows’ of around 45-50%, but amongst those who do express a view as to whether shale is good or bad for the atmosphere we have gone from a negative rating of -0.4 in June 2012 (26.6%-27%) to a positive rating of 13.5 (32.8%-19.3%) in July 2013. On another ‘cleanliness’ issue, water contamination, we see negative ratings for shale but again the same trends. In March 2012 44.5% of respondents associate shale with water contamination, and only 23.9% did not. In July 2013 the respective figures were 35.2% and 29.8%. This gives a move in ratings (if we take association with water contamination to represent disapproval) from -20.6 to -5.4 in this period.
One association that is firmly planted in the public mind is between shale gas and ‘earthquakes’. The number of people making this association has remained high throughout, standing at 58.5% in the first survey and at 59.3% in the latest survey. Those who do not make this association stood at 21.4% in the first survey and 20.1% now, so we have seen no more than trendless fluctuation around this variable, in part, presumably, due to the high media profile of the events surrounding earth tremors in Blackpool associated with Cuadrilla’s exploratory drilling operation at Preese Hall.
We also asked whether shale gas extraction in the UK should be allowed, a question intended to capture people’s overall judgement on shale. When we first asked this in June 2012, 52.6% were in favour and 27% against (+25.6); in July 2013, these figures stood at 58.3% and 18.8% (+39.5).
None of this means, however, that shale gas has particularly high approval ratings when compared with other potential sources of energy. When asked which sources should be part of the UK energy mix in 2025, where shale is put up against a range of alternatives, 61.6% of respondents say that it should be part of the mix. This puts shale roughly on par with nuclear (65.6%), coal (62.1%), and biomass (59.9%). Despite the trends identified in the data shale remains the second-least popular source of energy, and well behind hydro at 91.9% and solar at 90.2%. Looking at these figures we have to bear in mind that there are significant differences between the availability and reliability of these different sources of energy. It is worth noting that ‘conventional’ gas scores much higher than shale gas at 81.7%. This raises a question as to whether some of the public object to fracking techniques, or whether they believe (mistakenly) that ‘unconventional’ shale gas is a different gas to ‘conventional’ natural gas. We will look at this question in future surveys.
Overall, then, we see very clear trends in this data, and the British public continue to warm to shale. However, this does not entail that shale gas is a wildly popular alternative to other forms of energy, although it remains to be seen whether that will change if the current movement in the climate of opinion continues.
Sarah O’Hara, School of Geography, University of Nottingham
Mathew Humphrey, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham
The University of Nottingham shale gas survey has been conducted by YouGov. It was first run in March 2012 with the most recent survey taking place over a three-day window between June 30th and July 2nd 2013. The surveys are nationally representative and have been weighted. The total number of people that have responded to the survey has ranged between 2126 and 3697.