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Shale gas and public acceptability

Shale gas is seen by many as a valuable part of future energy supply in the UK, while objectors highlight potential risks and negative environmental impact. Ingenia traces the historical and technical background elsewhere in this issue (see page 12). Here, Professor Nick Pidgeon of the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University argues that gauging, and responding to, public attitude to shale gas is complex – not least because ‘the public’ comprises a multitude of groups with different concerns regarding risk.

Professor Nick Pidgeon

Professor Nick Pidgeon

Energy provides the life-blood of modern industrial society, and yet public acceptance of developments in new energy systems can no longer be taken for granted. Proposals for new energy infrastructure increasingly generate disputes between developers, governments, local communities and environmentalists. Wind farms, electricity grid upgrades, and new nuclear power proposals have all encountered significant public opposition in recent years.

The future for shale gas extraction in the UK may also hinge upon this key question of public acceptability, as much as it will on technical or economic factors. To understand why this might be so we need to look at the lessons learned from earlier controversies and see the similarity between these and the extraction of shale gas.

The Royal Society’s report Risk Analysis, Perception and Management(1992) concluded that many ‘crises of technology’ are often less about the technology per se, or of the absolute level of risk involved. Rather, people’s responses involve a range of concerns and value-based questions that go beyond the formal measurement of risk. These concerns include perceived threats to valued places or community, and mistrust of regulatory structures. Risk controversies at the interface of the environment and technology are rarely, if ever, simply about ‘risk’ alone.

Gauging the public attitude to shale gas and ‘fracking’ (hydraulic fracturing) is complex, with as yet very little direct evidence to go on. ‘The public’ is not a single entity, but comprises many groups with very different views regarding the possible balance between risks and benefits. Some people might prioritise climate change, while others will view energy affordability and reliability of supply, or provision of local jobs, as more important. Others will be reluctant to accept an energy supply that has the potential to pollute or that harbours any scientific uncertainty, however small that risk might be.

We already know that many people hold negative views of hydrocarbons compared to other sources of electricity generation. In nationally representative surveys conducted in 2005 and 2010 by our team at Cardiff University and Ipsos MORI we found a very consistent set of rankings whereby renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydropower are consistently favoured by a majority. Gas usually occupies an intermediate position in preferences whereas nuclear power, coal and oil are generally favoured least.

These surveys, together with in-depth qualitative research we have undertaken, help explain why hydrocarbons are disliked: not only are they seen as the major cause of climate change, but they are also perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be ‘dirty’ fuels which are detrimental for communities living nearby.

In recent work for the UK Energy Research Centre carried out by Cardiff University’s Understanding Risk Research Group, we have been exploring public attitudes to future energy systems in more detail, using deliberative methods where members of the general public debate with each other some of the tradeoffs involved in different energy scenarios for the future. Interestingly, in this work we found that people saw non-conventional hydrocarbons, including tar sands and shale gas, as ‘yesterday’s technology’, a finite resource that would inevitably run out one day, and one which ultimately was incompatible with their visions and hopes for a more sustainable energy future. The idea of carbon capture and storage did not find favour with our participants either. Shale gas, then, starts its life with baggage from the past that will be hard to escape from.

Local responses to energy issues can be even more complicated as we saw with the tremors in Blackpool that followed hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in 2011. National polls rarely examine the limits of people’s acceptability, whereas local surveys allow respondents to consider developments in relation to their own community’s local history, environment and social context.

It is here that the development of shale gas will set the objectives of national government – to achieve affordable and reliable supplies of energy – against those of the local communities that will bear various disruptions alongside possible uncertain environmental or health risks. At this local level, developers and media often dismiss objections as an example of a NIMBY, not in my backyard, response. Contemporary thinking, however, is that NIMBY is a highly misleading label, that over-simplifies what may be prompting local concerns. It also risks alienating local communities that may have to face long-term disruption and possible environmental damage.

There are many reasons why local communities might see shale gas extraction differently from government or developers. There may be worries that promises of environmental restoration at the end of a scheme will be unrealisable, or that initial small developments will lead to a more locally-damaging expansion of the industry later on. With renewable energy schemes an important concern has always been the protection of valued landscapes, with the implication that the distribution of detriment and benefit is unfair.

In some circumstances, developments might even threaten feelings of community identity and cohesion where the number of outside contractors is projected to be disproportionate in relation to the population of local residents for example. Above all, distrust of large outside companies or government agencies will always mean that local communities will closely scrutinise the actions and statements of these bodies, as well as arrangements for regulation and risk management.

Some of these concerns can be accommodated by offering community co-benefits in the form of direct compensation, as successfully happened in the Scottish Islands over many years with North Sea oil, or by involving communities directly through a degree of local co-ownership of an energy scheme – like some of the smaller successful wind farm developments. Other more long-term benefits, such as additional employment opportunities for local people, will also matter for many when a facility is in operation.

Communicating the engineering concepts of risk – probabilities, damage estimates – is unlikely to meet people’s actual concerns about shale gas extraction and the many potential impacts, uncertainties and questions that it will raise for local communities.

Public engagement about shale gas must aim for a genuine dialogue with affected public(s), and one that aims to build trust through demonstrating the very highest safety standards, while at the same time exploring people’s different values and meeting their concerns about uncertainties or for the governance of risk.


Professor Nick Pidgeon is Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group, School of Psychology at Cardiff University. For the past 25 years he has researched issues of risk perception, risk communication, and public engagement with science and technology, including topics such as nuclear power, renewable energy, nanotechnologies, climate change and geoengineering.

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