SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

New project to examine the politics of fracking in the UK

Our researchers aim to discover whether shale gas exploration is the route to a low carbon future or a costly detour for the energy industry with a new research project that looks at the politics of fracking and the utilisation of shale gas within the UK, primarily England.

A hotly contested issue since its emergence on the scene in 2010, the study will assess the scope for public opinion to influence policy and decision-making on shale site development in the UK, and whether this is likely to reduce or amplify controversy. 

frackingFracking is a technology that allows the extraction of unconventional fossil fuel resources (oil and gas). The technology has widely been used in North America over the last decade but it is in a much earlier stage of development in the UK.

Current UK Government policy actively encourages the use of hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking) as a means to meet the triple challenge of decarbonisation (a challenge which fracking partially overcomes due to its lower carbon output in comparison to coal, according to a report by the Department of Energy), affordability and energy security. 

However, many other members of the public view fracking as a risky technology with the potential to adversely affect public health and the natural environment, a development that would be a backwards step towards fossil fuels and away from renewable energy sources.

The project, entitled ‘Fracking, Framing and Effective Participation’, will analyse the opinions held by different groups and how this divide represents a key challenge for shale gas development in the UK. 

The study will also look at the governance of shale development, and the varying ideas about the ways and extent to which local communities should have a say in processes of decision-making. 

Governance is often a source of conflict, which most visibly manifests itself in public protests and police presence at shale gas sites.

Mr Laurence Williams, Research Fellow working on the project remarked: “‘Stop fracking democracy’ has been a common slogan amongst anti-fracking groups, reminding us that this controversy is about the governance of this new technology as well as perceived risks to health and the environment. This project will help shed light on whether opportunities for publics to participate in decision-making work to resolve or amplify such grievances.”

The study aims to improve the understanding of the nature of the challenge fracking presents through the analysis of three connected areas: 

1) Public perceptions – An analysis of evolving public perceptions of fracking, shale gas, and the governance of its development at both national and local levels.

2) Policy debates and commitments – An analysis of UK policy debates on fracking, how these debates led to a policy commitment to support fracking, and how this position continues to be contested by various stakeholders.

3) Processes of public engagement and participation – An assessment of the extent to which policies shape and are shaped by formal processes of public participation and engagement.

Professor Andrew Stirling, a co-Investigator of the project, said: 

One of the trickiest issues in technological controversies like UK fracking debates is that deciding the best way forward is not just a technical matter for expert-led ‘evidence-based policy’. Complexities, uncertainties and contending political values and interests extend deeply into the science itself. This is why this project will pay careful attention to the practical implications of different ways of framing the issue – and so help inform onward public debate in ways that are not only more rigorous but more accountable about which values and interests have been attended to, and which have been sidelined.”

The primary benefit of the research will be to provide both a better understanding of the scale and nature of the social and political challenges and a better understanding of the potential of public participation and engagement to help address these challenges.

Professor Benjamin Sovacool, who is leading the project, said “Shale gas could be a bridge to a low carbon future, or a costly detour. This project will enable us to better assess the social and political dynamics of this emerging innovation, as well as policy processes and potential risks.” 

The research, which will begin on the 1st July and is funded by the NERC and ESRC, involves a number of SPRU faculty; Benjamin Sovacool, Andy Stirling, Phil Johnstone and Laurence Williams, as well as Jonn Axsen from Simon Frasier University, Canada.