SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Fracking, Framing and Effective Participation

Context

Fracking is a technology that allows the extraction of unconventional fossil fuel resources (oil and gas) from the earth. 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. It has been a hotly contested issue since its emergence on the scene in 2010.

A new project, ‘Fracking, Framing and Effective Participation’, will analyse the opinions held by different groups on fracking and how this divide represents a key challenge for shale gas development in the UK. The project involves a number of SPRU faculty: Prof Benjamin Sovacool, Prof Andy Stirling, Dr Phil Johnstone and Laurence Williams, as well as Assoc. Prof Jonn Axsen from Simon Frasier University, Canada.

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, affordability and energy security. However, many 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 will investigate whether shale gas exploration is the route to a low-carbon future (or a costly detour!), 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.

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.

Methodology / approach

Public perceptions of shale gas, fracking, and the governance of its development will be studied at both the level of the general public and the local community through a web-based representative survey of UK citizens as well as in-depth interviewing with community members in the case-study region (the Fylde). 

The study aims to understand 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.

Impact

The project aims to:
I. Provide up-to-date evidence on key socio-political challenges faced by the UK in its development of shale gas;

II. Develop a novel analytical framework drawing out the interactions between public perceptions, policy and practices of public participation and engagement;

III. Draw lessons for policy makers and stakeholders interested in fracking to better inform public debate regarding the subject.

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, as well as a better understanding of the potential of public participation and engagement, in order to help address these challenges.

Further information

The research is funded by the NERC and ESRC.