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Did the protests at Balcombe have an impact on public perceptions of shale gas?

The UK has witnessed the first significant protest against the use of hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, with the Sussex village of Balcombe (which is located approximately 16 miles north of Brighton) becoming the centre of media interest in both Britain and around the world as anti-fracking protesters congregated on the area to stop the drilling activities being undertaken by Cuadrilla Resources. Although Cuadrilla Resources planned to drill ‘a conventional oil well’, not ‘frack’ for shale gas, future fracking for oil had not been ruled out, and it is clear from the media reporting of events that the protests were very much linked with the ongoing debates about shale gas extraction. The protests were widely covered in the UK and beyond with extensive coverage on the television, radio, and in print media, with a total of 124 people, including the Green MP Caroline Lucas, arrested for public order offences. Given the events at Balcombe we thought it timely to run our shale gas survey for a seventh time to see whether the protests at Balcombe appeared to have an impact on public perceptions of shale gas in the UK.

The results show that in the wake of the Balcombe protests the previously reported steady increase in support for shale gas in the UK has reversed somewhat. Our September 2013 survey showed that a record 64.7% of respondents were able to correctly identify shale gas from an opening question about hydraulic fracturing. These respondents then complete the rest of the survey.

One of the themes of the Balcombe protest was the possibility of water contamination around the site of any fracking activity, and a regular question on the survey has sought to test people’s association of shale gas extraction and water contamination.  The number of people associating shale gas with water contamination had declined from 44.5% in March 2012 to 35.2% in the July 2013 report. In September that figure has risen again to 41.4%, the highest for any of the 2013 surveys.

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Another regular question is whether people think of shale gas as a ‘clean’ form of energy. We see a similar pattern with responses to this question. Pre-Balcombe the number of people who did NOT associate shale gas and clean energy had declined, from 44.8% in March 2012 to 36.5% in July 2013 (with the same ‘blip’ in December as we had for water contamination). This figure ticks back up in September 2013 to 41.7%, with the number of people who DO make the association declining from 33.5% to 30.8% in the same period.

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The surveys also ask respondents about the effect they think the use of shale gas may have on greenhouse gas emissions, and whether they think it will increase or decrease these overall. Here we have always had a plurality of ‘don’t knows’ but there has also been a movement toward seeing shale gas as leading to lower emissions amongst those who have offered a view. This has also reversed in the latest survey, with the gap between the ‘lower’ and the ‘higher’ responses shrinking from 13.5% to 9.8%.

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We also see a slight turn against shale on indicators that seem poorly related to the themes of the Balcombe protests, so the number of respondents seeing shale gas as a ‘cheap’ fuel has fallen from 55% to 51.7%.

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The only indicator that appears to move ‘in favour’ of shale in this survey is the association with earthquakes, which reached a peak of 71% in April 2012 around the time of the tremors in Blackpool, but which has now fallen back to 52.6%

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So, with all of this negative movement, do the public still favour allowing the extraction of shale gas in the UK? The answer to this is that a majority still favour allowing extraction, but that majority has declined between July and September, from 58.3% to 54.1%.

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Our surveys indicate that significantly more people are aware of shale gas compared to sixteen months ago. More substantively, up to September 2013 the survey data showed that, amongst those of the public who recognised shale gas from the opening question, there was an increasing acceptance of it as a cheap, clean energy source (although it is important to add that this was a trend, not necessarily a majority view). It is interesting that, in the first survey subsequent to the protests at Balcombe, we see this trend go into reverse on most measures. This may have important implications for the politics of fracking in the UK, if the anti-fracking lobby come to believe that highly visible forms of protest at potential sites for hydraulic fracturing are the most effective means of changing the public mood.

Sarah O’Hara, School of Geography, University of Nottingham

Mathew Humphrey, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham

You can read the full report here: Public Perception of Shale Gas Extraction in the UK: The Impact of the Balcombe Protests in July-August 2013

The surveys

The University of Nottingham shale gas survey was first run in March 2012 with the most recent survey taking place over a four-day window between 20th and 24th September 2013.  The surveys, which are conducted via YouGov, are nationally representative and are  weighted. The total number of people that have responded to the survey has ranged from between 2126 and 3697 (Table 1) with the total number of people surveyed over the duration of the study being more than 21,300.

The surveys

Published inBritish Politics


  1. dave dave

    hi there i think that your figures would be slightly different if the media (who is suppossed to be impartial) showed both sides of the story to the public! it seems that they have been silienced by the oil companys, just like the polititions.

  2. When it comes to shale gas, the UK government has bet early on this highly impacting industry as the answer to all our economic and energy problems and embarked on an improbable campaign to sell this to the British Public- the spin cycle has been set to maximum greenwash.

    The closer we get to UK elections, and the more the spin begins to wobble- these percentages will continue to move in opposition to government plans for shale gas. Considering these plans impact on many tory strongholds, this could well prove the undoing of the Conservative Party’s forthcomming election campaign.

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