Fracking controversy ‘spills over’ to other technologies

26 Jan 2023

Hydraulic fracturing for unconventional oil and gas – ‘fracking’ – has had a tumultuous journey in many parts of the world, not least the UK. An initial political commitment to go “all out for shale” came increasingly into conflict with the growing public unease about the technique, with concerns around issues such as water supply, greenhouse gas emissions, earth tremors, procedural justice and distributional equity. Local communities argued that the process had left them feeling ignored and disenfranchised, with eventual high-profile protests and civil disobedience.

In response, the devolved nations all imposed fracking moratoria. Yet the majority of the potential resource lay in England, particularly in the North-West and the South Downs. In 2019, in a move widely perceived to be politically expedient in the run-up to a general election, the Westminster government announced its own moratorium. But in 2022, fracking returned firmly to the policy agenda, when Liz Truss promised to lift the moratorium in response to energy supply concerns, even though people from within the industry itself were warning that the socioeconomic and economic barriers were too high. Most recently, following a parliamentary revolt, the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak re-committed to keep the moratorium in place.

Testing ‘perception spillover’ from fracking

So, what happens next? It would be tempting to believe that the UK fracking story has at least been paused indefinitely. Yet in new research published in Nature Energy, we argue that the impacts of fracking may have far-reaching consequences for the energy transition, because the controversy has ‘spilled over’ to impact other technologies.

To test our hypothesis of perception spillover, we developed a mixed-methods study using a nationally-representative UK survey and focus groups in South Wales. We wanted to test the impacts of fracking on two low-carbon energy technologies, both of which may play a role in the UK’s energy transition. We chose deep enhanced geothermal systems as a ‘similar’ technology (due to its use of deep underground drilling), and green hydrogen from electrolysis as a more dissimilar technology. In the process, we also generated some findings regarding public perceptions of green hydrogen, available here.

Fracking impacts perceptions of geothermal (and hydrogen?)

Our study suggests that negative perceptions of fracking are an important factor in people’s perceptions of deep geothermal. We found that some people make spontaneous connections between the two; in fact, we were surprised to find that participants mentioned fracking within the first few minutes of the focus groups. In these cases, the fracking controversy is salient enough to act as the main risk association informing people’s opinions. When others were then prompted to think about fracking, triggering latent associations, the proportion of negative spillover increased noticeably to nearly half the sample in our survey, shown in the graph below.

For green hydrogen on the other hand, we found no evidence of these spontaneous associations. Yet after being prompted to think about fracking, participants in both the survey and focus groups felt more positive about it because they perceived it as different from fracking.

Fracking GraphFigure 1: Percentage of respondents for whom fracking had influenced their opinion of deep geothermal or hydrogen. Question only received by those with prior awareness of fracking (86.6%).

Underground technologies

Overall, this supports hypotheses generated in previous work on Carbon Capture and Storage, and leads us to suggest that techniques with an underground drilling/injection component are most vulnerable to perception spillover effects from fracking. Our participants perceived the deep underground as unknowable, containing an intrinsic threat, and where changes are potentially irreversible. Perception spillover from fracking could therefore impact many other techniques not included in this study, including CO2 injection, compressed air energy storage, and hydrogen storage.

Conditions for deployment

That said, we were surprised to find mostly conditional acceptance for deep geothermal, even in the presence of strong spillover effects. This contrasted with people’s opinions of fracking, which was strongly disliked – focus group participants called it “nasty”, “horrible” and “a 19th Century fuel”, and 86.6% of the survey were opposed. Yet geothermal encountered much more ambivalence, particularly over whether its status as a renewable energy source is sufficient to justify it, despite worries about drilling and induced seismicity.

Therefore, we found that perception spillover doesn’t necessarily lead to complete rejection of a technique. Instead, it shows us the types of important conditions which must be met: for example, that underground techniques should be done in a well-controlled and transparent manner, and should represent a shift away from fossil fuels. Where perception spillover from fracking occurs, such conditions might be very stringent, and often relate directly to the conditions which fracking was perceived to have failed to meet.

Moving forward

Perception spillover acts as an important reminder that public opposition and controversy can have far-reaching impacts. Judging by the spontaneous associations we identified, we suggest that trying to downplay similarities might backfire, especially if geothermal creates earth tremors. Rather than trying to avoid perception spillover or to ‘communicate around’ it, it might be better to openly acknowledge and attempt to move past it, for instance by supporting policy narratives which commit to the phase out of fossil fuels, and by offering local communities a genuine voice in decisions which affect them.