A report by experts at The University of Nottingham
shows that the recent protests at Balcombe may have had a negative impact on the public’s perceptions of shale gas.
In the UK’s first significant protest against the use of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), in the Sussex village, anti-fracking protestors gathered to stop the drilling activities being undertaken by Cuadrilla Resources.
This is the seventh survey carried out by researchers from the University over an 18 month period, looking at people’s perceptions of shale gas and whether it would be accepted it as an alternative to other forms of energy.
The results show that in the wake of the protests, the previously reported steady increase in support for shale gas in the UK has reversed. The September survey results found that a record 64.7 per cent of respondents were able to correctly identify shale gas from an opening question about fracking.
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 per cent in March 2012 to 35.2 per cent in the July 2013 report. In September that figure has risen again to 41.4 per cent, the highest for any of the 2013 surveys.
Another question posed in the survey, was whether people think of shale gas as a ‘clean’ form of energy?
Professor Sarah O’Hara, School of Geography, who led the study along with Professor Matthew Humphrey from the School of Political and International Relations, said: “We have seen a similar pattern with responses to this question. Pre-Balcombe the number of people who did NOT associate shale gas and clean energy has declined from 44.8 per cent in March 2012 to 36.5 per cent in July 2013. This figure ticks back up in September to 41.7 per cent with the number of people who DO make the association declining from 33.5 per cent TO 30.8 per cent in the same period.”
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 there 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 per cent to 9.8 per cent.
The results also show 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 per cent to 51.7 per cent. 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 per cent in April 2012 around the time of the tremors in Blackpool, but which has now fallen back to 52.6 per cent.
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 per cent to 54.1 per cent.
Professor Humphrey adds: “Our surveys indicate that significantly more people are aware of shale gas compared to 18 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.”
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.
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’.
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