Expert Scientific Panel on Unconventional Oil and Gas report

A report published on behalf of the Expert Scientific Panel on Unconventional Oil and Gas, which reviews the available scientific evidence.

Chapter 8 - Public awareness and engagement

Public reactions to unconventional gas to date in the UK

8.1 Before 2011, the subject of unconventional oil & gas was not routinely reported or debated in the national media. However, the induced seismic events at Preese Hall in 2011 and the subsequent UK Government moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas brought the issue into the public consciousness. From that point onwards, unconventional oil & gas has featured frequently in the media.

8.2 The UK Government has also outlined a supportive policy towards shale gas development in particular, with a number of highly publicised announcements.

8.3 At the same time, campaigns and protests against unconventional gas (in particular where fracking is involved) escalated in the UK. For example, in August 2013, Cuadrilla had to scale back exploration activities in Balcombe, Sussex, in part due to active public resistance. It is worth noting that, contrary to many protestors' concerns, the hydrocarbon exploration being proposed at Balcombe was not for shale gas and would not have involved hydraulic fracturing. Anti-fracking campaigns have also focused on CBM activities, e.g those organised by Frackfree Scotland, Frack off Scotland and Frack Free Forth Valley, Concerned Communities of Falkirk, Canonbie Residents against Coal and Friends of Earth Scotland.

8.4 Robust, scientific evidence around the safety and regulation of unconventional oil & gas is becoming available. However, as in any emerging field of research, evidence is sometimes conflicting or appears to be contradictory. In addition, outcomes from research that is either untested, or has not been subject to peer-review has been cited in the media and circulated on the web.

8.5 Evidence from active shale gas and CBM sites comes particularly from the USA and Australia. Caution is required when trying to extrapolate evidence because these developments occur under very different regulatory and economic conditions than are likely in the UK. Therefore, conclusions drawn from these studies should only be applied to the UK or Scotland very carefully.

8.6 Expert, political and media discussion tends to imply that the public are lacking knowledge about the risks associated with unconventional gas, and need to be informed ( e.g. article in The Telegraph from Dominiczak, 2014). The public also expresses many concerns that are not just questions of safety, including questions around trust in, and the motives of, policy makers and operators, human-environmental ethics and social justice (Williams, 2013; Jaspal et al in press).

8.7 It is understandable that there is confusion and uncertainty among the general public and there is an urgent need to understand and address the genuine concerns that communities have about unconventional gas. Confusion has been expressed about the regulatory framework and a lack of confidence in the regulatory regime. Commonly expressed concerns include:

  • Environmental concerns (water contamination, air pollution, naturally occurring radioactive substances);
  • Water consumption;
  • Induced seismicity (almost uniquely in the UK);
  • Effects of a new fossil fuel resource on climate change targets;
  • Reconciling investment in unconventional gas with investment in renewable energy;
  • Social impacts ( e.g. social impact of staffing accommodation, truck movements, noise, visual impact);
  • Health concerns (for example, exposure to carcinogens or air pollutants);
  • Industrialisation of rural landscapes and effect on food production;
  • Corporate and government power and trust;
  • Community disempowerment ( e.g. lack of consultation, uninvited respondents to public demonstrations).

8.8 The dominance of risk assessment approaches in the science and technology reports on unconventional gas (italicised in the list above) means that much of the public concern is "framed out" of such debates. Public engagement is often framed as informing the public and smoothing the path to a new industry: "the public reaction to the earthquakes, rather than the earthquakes themselves, is said to undermine fracking" (Jaspal and Nerlich 2014). Genuine public engagement on unconventional gas needs to include a consideration of social, political and ethical aspects of developments, both within the community and as a nation.

8.9 Media representation of the debate can be defined broadly into two camps (Jaspal and Nerlich 2014). There is a body of media that focuses on the negative environmental and health effects of unconventional gas, and which places the burden of proof on operators and policymakers/regulators to proceed safely (the precautionary principle). A second body of media focuses on the potential of unconventional gas to increase the indigenous ( UK) energy resource, lower prices and create jobs, and which emphasises that gas is a greener supplier of baseload electricity than coal. The latter point of view emphasises that, as long as best practice is implemented, the best way to exploit these resources is "learning by doing" (Williams 2013).

8.10 Such polarised views often result in the "cherry picking" of data and anecdotal evidence to support either position (Jaspal and Nerlich 2014), making it a harder proposition to use the wider body of robust evidence to have a balanced debate on the subject. Arguably, this only leads to further confusion among the public.

Studies on public awareness and acceptability of shale gas in the UK

8.11 Detailed research by social scientists into public perceptions of unconventional oil and gas extraction is in its infancy. While there is a lot of research taking place, much of it has yet to be published in peer reviewed journals.

8.12 The DECC public attitudes tracker first asked the public about shale gas in the 2012 survey ( DECC 2012). Overall, awareness of shale gas is increasing (75% to some degree aware of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in March 2014, compared to 42% in June 2012). In March 2014, results showed that 29% supported extraction of shale gas and 22% opposed, compared to 27% for and 21% opposed in Dec 2013.

8.13 In 2012, the UK Energy Research Centre commissioned research into the kind of information sources that are typically used by the public to learn about debates into energy and climate security (Happer et al. 2012). The primary aim was to look at how these information sources affect the formation of public beliefs and commitments to behavioural change. In follow up interviews, participants were asked specifically about shale gas and fracking. The term was familiar to few participants, and none of those fully understood the process and its environmental impacts. The researchers noted that, at this stage of learning, people are still forming their opinions and so they are more open to information and expertise on the subject. This is when the messages being portrayed by policymakers, scientists and journalists are most influential.

8.14 Cuadrilla Ltd commissioned a survey in October 2012 from a private survey company on public opinions in the area around Cuadrilla's licence blocks in Lancashire (Britain Thinks 2012). Survey results showed relatively low levels of knowledge about shale gas compared to other energy sources, concerns about seismicity and water contamination, and a view that shale gas could bring cheaper energy and jobs. 44% of respondents "strongly supported" or "supported" continued exploration whereas 23% of respondents said they "strongly opposed" or "opposed" continued exploration.

8.15 The University of Nottingham conducted eight surveys via YouGov from March 2012 to Jan 2014 with over 25,000 participants. The results suggested that public awareness of fracking had increased: the percentage of people able to identify shale gas from an opening question about hydraulic fracturing had risen from 37.6% (March 2012) to just under 66% (Jan 2014). The number associating shale gas with water contamination had fluctuated between 35% and 45%. It was found that more people associate shale gas with cheap energy (40-55%) and clean energy (36-45%) than either do not associate or don't know. In June 2012 the question "should shale gas be allowed in the UK" was asked for the first time: the percentage agreeing has remained fairly consistent at 53 - 58%.

8.16 An ICM (2013) Research survey commissioned by the Guardian (conducted by telephone) to over 1000 respondents in August 2013 showed that 44% of respondents agreed that fracking should take place in the UK, whereas 30% disagreed and 26% remained undecided. However, when asked whether they support fracking in their local area, the respondents displayed a split opinion, with 41% in favour and 40% opposed.

8.17 Researchers at the Durham University-led ReFINE group (Researching Fracking IN Europe) held a series of deliberative focus groups in March 2013 at various locations in England (Williams, 2013). The research aimed to elicit and articulate lay judgements on the exploitation of shale gas (in particular, where fracking would be used) and the underlying factors driving them. The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal but the thesis is available online (Williams, 2013).

8.18 An investigation of public attitudes by the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University suggested that the public do not see shale gas as the solution to UK energy security or reducing carbon emissions. Their research also shows that traditional risk assessments often overlook factors influencing public concerns - such as whether the risk is perceived as controllable, the amount of trust in risk management, and the effect of media reporting. Therefore "'focusing on the engineering concepts of risk, such as probabilities and damage estimates, is unlikely to meet people's actual concerns about fracking'" (Economic and Social Research Council, 2012).

Tools for engaging the public

8.19 Planning consultation. There is a growing body of evidence showing that sustained and meaningful community engagement has beneficial outcomes for the communities, operators and policymakers (c.f. new requirements for early consultation on wind energy developments; Walker and Devine-Wright 2008).

8.20 A mitigation and enhancement plan is of most value if mitigation and enhancement are designed into a project. Therefore, early consultation is crucial. There are several routes for the public to engage in the planning of unconventional gas developments in their area. This list has been adapted from the UK Onshore Oil and Gas Operators Group's guidelines ( UKOOG, 2014) with reference to Scottish legislative framework and planning rules:

(i) Pre-Application Consultation with local communities is part of UKOOG's community engagement charter. This can take place via public exhibitions, face to face meetings, websites, press releases and letters. There is a legal requirement for developers to consult communities on applications for national and major developments. National developments are set out in the National Planning Framework and major developments defined in legislation i.e. anything in Schedule 1 of the EIA regulations or over 2 hectares for minerals. There is a minimum 12 week period between the submission of the proposal of application notice and submitting the application;
(ii) Environmental Risk Assessment ( ERA) reviews all the safety and environmental risks, and documents how these will be managed and mitigated. Operators should engage with local communities on the ERA as part of their pre-application consultation. DEFRA's Guidelines for Environmental Risk Assessment and Management ( DEFRA, 2011) suggest that a participatory risk assessment should be used;
(iii) Pre-planning notices. Twenty-one days prior to submitting a planning application the operator must inform landowners of their intention to submit a planning application (and include an address for comments) by writing to landowners, displaying notices in the local area and in the local newspapers;
(iv) Planning Authority Consultation. Once the application has been validated by the local authority, they will conduct a public consultation over a minimum of 21-days . This consultation is longer with Statutory Consultees (from EIA regulations). If an EIA is required/submitted then the consultation is a minimum of 28 days. If new information is provided by consultants or the public, then a further 28 day consultation period is required;
(v) Environmental Impact Assessment ( EIA). An EIA assesses the significance of potential environmental affects and identifies mitigation measures. The UKOOG community charter has committed operators to carrying out an EIA for all hydraulically-fractured wells. The scoping stage of an EIA can scope in risks that are not just environmental, e.g. road traffic accidents;
(vi) Environmental Permits from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Where a license is required for the abstraction from or discharge to the water environment, SEPA will normally only require applications to be advertised where the proposed controlled activity is likely to have a 'significant adverse impact on the water environment'.

8.21 It is clear that there is scope for good practice to be conducted in community engagement at the stage of being granted an exploration licence. However, concerns have been raised that there may be a loophole when an appraisal or production licence is being granted. For example, the guidelines on ERA for exploration explicitly state that scale-up is not to be considered, which leads to a concern that if there is no ERA at the production planning stage, then there is a possibility that the next step in scale-up to exploration may be too incremental to require an ERA - thereby bypassing the need for an ERA.

8.22 Social Impacts Assessment ( SIA) is about the process of managing the social issues associated with developments (Esteves et al 2012) . A SIA should be a participatory process that includes facilitating community discussions about acceptability of likely benefits, forecasting likely changes from well-defined baseline data, identifying ways of mitigating potential impacts and maximising potential benefits, and negotiating between the communities and the developer/operator. While not currently mandatory, increasingly SIA is used as a tool.

8.23 Health Impacts Assessment ( HIA) provide baseline indicators for public health and may identify any likely pathways for health impacts and suggest plans for mitigation strategies. Public health impact assessment includes social determinants for health, such as anxiety, inequality (the health status of a community is strongly determined by socioeconomic status) and green spaces.

8.24 The Public Health England report (2013, draft for comment, final version not yet published) suggests that health impact assessments are best made at a strategic level or for large scale projects as they can be time-consuming (months to years) and costly.

8.25 Social and health impacts could be scoped in to an environmental impact assessment. For instance, council planning permission could advocate for HIA to be included. Many major oil companies conduct what is referred to as an ESHIA (Environmental, Social and Health Impacts Assessment) as a matter of course.

Good neighbour agreements/Impacts benefit agreements

8.26 Good Neighbour Agreements ( GNAs, e.g. Illsley 2002) are negotiated agreements between a developer/operator and a local community, where a company agrees to comply with environmental and social standards higher than those imposed by law. Friends of the Earth Scotland conducted a study in 2004, concluding that GNAs are suitable for implementation under the Scottish legal, social and political landscape (Friends of the Earth Scotland, 2004).

8.27 Impact Benefits Agreements ( IBAs, e.g. O'Faircheallaigh 1999) are a very similar tool that have been used extensively in projects worldwide. IBAs build on SIA and EIA to develop tangible benefits for local communities, and have become particularly used by indigenous communities.

Baseline data, monitoring and systems for reacting to monitoring data.

8.28 Many of the contentious issues in the US could have been mitigated to some degree by baseline monitoring prior to development. For instance, it is now widely acknowledged that the infamous occurrence of "flaming tapwater" in the United States, as shown in the documentary movie "Gasland", actually pre-dated any drilling activity. Similarly, the lack of good data on public health prior to the start of drilling activities has confounded attempts to quantify and attribute health effects around unconventional gas dvelopments in the US and Australia. Baseline data would have provided evidence of, for example, the background groundwater methane levels or prevalence of ill-health around development areas.

8.29 In the UK, the BGS is undertaking a national survey of methane in groundwater and has long catalogued UK seismicity. Good practice may be for operators to implement or facilitate higher resolution, site-specific surveys as part of their public engagement and social responsibility, a good example of which is the report commissioned by the Polish Ministry of the Environment at 3-Legs Resources' Lebien LE-2H well (Polish Geological Institute - National Research Institute 2011).

8.30 Open source monitoring data may help to inspire public confidence in new technologies. The BGS are developing a system called the Energy Test Bed, inspired by the "arms-length" Alberta Environmental Monitoring Agency. Further details can be accessed at

8.31 Citizen science networks are relatively well established in the US. Three examples are:

  • The US National Science Foundation-funded Shale Network (, which is mainly focussed on water quality but also collects data on social impacts;
  • The Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring ( ALLARM), which provides local communities with scientific tools to assess, protect, and restore waterways;
  • Citizen Shale (, which is more policy-facing and aims to review and support policies, educate citizens and provide tools for monitoring.

8.32 Community benefit funds set up to distribute income locally have had success in the wind energy sector ( DECC and Renewable UK 2012). Funds can be administered within a community, by a local council or by specialist community fund managers. Supporting investment in community projects may also support local jobs. It has been estimated that hundreds of rural jobs will be supported by community funds in the onshore wind energy sector by 2020.

8.33 Respondents to the January 2014 YouGov survey (O'Hara et al, 2013) were asked for their opinions on the proposals that operators pay a one-off £100,000 per fracked well, plus 1% of profits to the local community. The majority of people thought that the payments would be to 'get the community's support for fracking in their area' rather than to bring 'benefits to the community'. These results suggest that such payments can be perceived as "buying off" local opposition.

8.34 The UK Onshore Operators Group ( UKOOG) has set up a partnership with UK Community Foundations ( UKCF) to "ensure community benefit funds are managed and distributed independently of the operators themselves" ( UKOOG, 2014).

Examples of good practice by regulators and operators

8.35 The UKOOG launched a Community Engagement Charter for unconventional hydrocarbons in 2013, outlining the provision of "benefits to local communities at the exploration/appraisal stage of £100,000 per well site where hydraulic fracturing takes place", and "a share of proceeds at production stage of 1% of revenues, allocated approximately 2/3rd to the local community and 1/3rd at the county level". Individual operators also have best practice charters - e.g. Statoil's "Operator commitments" (Statoil, 2013).

8.36 In Australia, the states of Queensland and New South Wales have required CBM operators to conduct comprehensive social impact assessments, quarantine certain strategic agricultural land from developments, and use local sources of labour and businesses. The Australian Council of Learned Academies (Cook et al 2013) notes that this represents a serious effort to manage the social impacts of CBM developments on local communities, though it is too early to tell if these have had a significant effect.

8.37 The Australian Council of Learned Academies (Cook et al 2013) summarise three main routes for maximising benefit to local regions:

  • Information sharing, communication and transparency. This may be crucial for public engagement, management of impacts and opportunities, and evaluating the effects of policies;
  • Economic diversification leveraged off unconventional gas developments. This is more important in areas with "few comparative advantages";
  • A planned and strategic approach to developments to minimise negative impacts and maximise enhancement (c.f. McCluskey and João 2010).

8.38 Much of the public concern has been about the public availability or non-disclosure of data on the composition of fracking fluids. In the US, Frac Focus ( was set up in 2011 by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission as a publically accessible registry for all hydraulic fracturing chemicals. This does not replace any regulatory requirements in any state, but provides a single platform that enables the public to find information on chemical additives being used by operators across the USA.

8.39 However, a recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Task Force Report, detailed on FracFocus (2014), found that "a large fraction of reporting wells claim at least one trade secret exemption".

8.40 According to SEPA's regulatory guidance on coal bed methane and shale gas ( SEPA 2012), "Operators must provide details of all of the chemical additives contained in drilling and fracturing fluids". SEPA will examine any application for injection and ensure that any substances involved are of a type and at a concentration that will not cause pollution of the water environment.

8.41 Operators have the right to claim that information contained within or attached to an application is commercially confidential. If SEPA agrees for the need for confidentiality, the application will be placed on the register with the confidential information removed. In this case, while the information is not publically available, the regulator will have had clear information about all chemical additives.

Who is defined as the "local" public?

8.42 Opposition to wind farms is partly a function of distance from a development site (Jones & Eiser 2010). UKOOG's community charter states that "Typically, local communities are defined as those parishes, community councils or properties which are directly located in the vicinity of any producing site or affected by any of the infrastructure required to support a producing site. The exact boundaries of the 'local community' will be defined on a site-by-site basis in conjunction with the community. "

8.43 Some of the protesters at UK shale gas and CBM sites are not from local communities. Many of these non-local protestors may be expressing more general concerns about the climate effect of an increased fossil fuel resource, the potential for funding to be diverted from carbon-neutral energy sources and the industrialization of the landscape. Lacey, et al. (2012) state that a social license to operate includes the wider public beyond the immediately affected community. While much of the best practice in community engagement focuses on the local communities, the wider community also has a right to make its views heard in any strategic decision-making.


  • Public concerns around unconventional gas development include concerns about technical risks such as water contamination, public health and seismicity, but also wider issues such as social impacts on communities, effect on climate targets and trust in operators, regulators and policymakers;
  • In addition to the environmental impacts documented in Chapter 6, the process of exploring for shale gas and CBM and, if it happens, eventual scaling up to full production, will have social impacts on a local community;
  • Social impacts documented from shale gas and CBM developments in the US and Australia have included job creation, local business investment and investment in infrastructure as well as population growth affecting local housing markets and local demographics; house prices; health effects on animals and people; increased truck traffic; and the impacts of development and protesters on stigmatising local communities;
  • Many of these social (and environmental) impacts can be mitigated if they are carefully considered at the planning application stage. Early consultation with communities is vital to identify potential impacts on a community, to scope out potential benefits and to develop plans to mitigate the impacts and enhance the benefits.


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