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Shale gas debate characterised by rhetoric and hysteria

January 28th, 2014

Since the publication of an Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ policy statement on UK shale gas in September 2012, we have consistently called for a technically literate, well-informed and evidence based discussion on this topic.

What we are actually getting at the moment is a national debate characterised by over-hyped rhetoric and widespread hysteria.

If the country and individual communities are to make informed decisions on whether to allow shale gas exploitation to take place they need to understand the issues and have an opportunity to discuss them openly and sensibly.

It is therefore worrying that about two-thirds of those polled in a recent public survey commissioned by institution said they either don’t know what fracking is or indicated that they only have ‘some’ understanding of the activity.

The poll asked over 2000 members of the public on their views of shale gas or fracking and was carried out by ICM on behalf of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The poll results showed that only 30 per cent of people have a good understanding of what fracking is, compared with 40 per cent who said they had ‘some’ understanding and 30 per cent who said they had little or no understanding.

Clearly much more work needs to be done by industry and government to inform the public about the techniques involved and the various controls being put in place to protect the local environment as well as ensure the safety of the process, if we are to have a sensible debate.

The findings of the poll emerged just days after Prime Minister David Cameron announced that councils that host fracking sites will get to keep 100 per cent of the business rates liable on the shale gas wells.

This new incentive came as an addition to that already announced last year, which in essence would result in communities that allowed shale gas related activities to take place in their areas receiving £100,000 upfront per exploratory well plus a 1 per cent share of the lifetime revenues from productive wells once the gas begins to flow.

However, our poll results suggest that simply offering money to local councils and communities is not going to be enough to convince the public about the benefits of fracking for gas, with 47 per cent of people surveyed stating that they would not be happy for a gas well site using the process to open within 10 miles of their home, compared to just 14 per cent who said they would be happy.

The biggest concerns expressed by the people polled included fears of damage to the local environment, the associated noise and disruption, fears over the chemicals used and health risks, as well as risks that drinking water might be contaminated.

Of the people who said they were against having a fracking site near their home, 80 per cent said they had concerns over the damage to the local environment; 63 per cent said they had concerns over truck movements and associated noise and disruption; 60 per cent cited concerns over drinking water being contaminated; 59 per cent said concerns about the health risks bothered them and 56 per cent said they had concerns over the chemicals used in the process.

Building trust between government, industry and communities is essential if the nation wishes to make use of fracking in shale rocks under the UK and much more work evidently needs to be done to engage with citizens on these topics.

The need for increased technical literacy and rigorous evidence-based discussion in this debate does not however apply solely to those against the exploitation of UK shale gas resources.

Of the people who said they would be in favour of having a fracking site near their home, 58 per cent said they would support the activity because it would benefit the country’s energy security and 43 per cent because it would reduce consumer energy bills; both of which, as an interrogation of the evidence base will reveal, are not realistic outcomes despite what the Prime Minister keeps telling us.

One interesting broader finding from the survey, with particular relevance to UK government’s climate change mitigation policies, is that concerns over the damage that fracking might cause to the local environment dominated negative sentiment, rather than wider issues related to continued fossil fuel usage.

Of those unhappy with fracking taking place near their home, only 25 per cent cited the continued use of fossil fuels as a concern, which suggests that in the case of shale gas exploitation, local issues are regarded as more important than the broader impacts on global warming and climate change.

The poll results certainly suggests that there is much room for improved public understanding on this topic, and through our media appearances, public speaking engagements, discussion panel participation, government interactions and press comments the Institution strives to bring engineering rigour to the debate.

However, as we have pointed out on many occasions, this whole debate is in many ways premature, because without significant exploratory drilling, as a nation we have next to no substantive knowledge of what the UK shale gas opportunity really is.

Dr Tim Fox is Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

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