Fracking may have impacted public trust in new technologies

31 Mar 2021

A whole-systems view

Energy systems are fundamentally interconnected. UKERC has long pioneered the idea of taking a ‘whole systems’ view, trying to avoid looking at technologies and policies in siloes. For example, UKERC research has shown that policies from non-energy sectors – ‘invisible energy policies’ – can have important effects on patterns of energy demand. Therefore it’s reasonable to conclude that policies relating to one technology will have knock-on impacts elsewhere. This could also be true for energy controversies, with the negative consequences for public perceptions potentially spilling over onto other technologies.

In Europe and the US, few energy issues have ignited as much controversy as fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for shale oil and gas. Protests by local and environmental groups led to bans or restrictions on licensing activity in numerous European countries and US states, and researchers suggested that fracking was becoming stigmatised in the public mind. In the UK, strong political support for fracking was increasingly at odds with public opposition, with surveys showing a steady decrease in public support across the country. In 2019, shortly before a general election, the government issued a moratorium.

Fracking controversy had knock-on effects

Our new paper uses qualitative data from a study on public perceptions of Carbon Dioxide Removal: novel techniques for removing previously-emitted CO2 from the atmosphere. Projections suggest that meeting the UK’s net zero target will be near-impossible without deploying some of these techniques, yet they remain at a very early stage. Developing them further in a responsible manner will require extensive and ongoing public engagement, and an understanding of public attitudes.

In 2018, we ran deliberative workshops with participants from the general public in England and Wales, to understand public perceptions of bioenergy with carbon capture (BECCS), direct air capture, and enhanced weathering. Fracking was not part of the study – we didn’t mention it in our facilitation or stimulus materials, and our participants were from Cardiff and Norfolk, hundreds of miles away from sites of drilling activity or protests. However, during the workshop discussions, we noticed that participants often mentioned fracking completely unprompted. Finding this interesting, we analysed the workshop transcripts in more detail, searching for specific comments and conversations related to fracking.

But they told us it was safe!

We found that people had negative connotations of fracking, and used these to draw similar negative conclusions about Carbon Dioxide Removal techniques, despite the fact that (technically speaking) the similarities are quite limited. In particular, the controversy over fracking made people worry that scientists will be unable to predict and control risks. Some people appeared to become more sceptical about scientific assurances of safety when fracking was mentioned.

Some of the techniques we discussed involve Carbon Capture and Storage, and it’s easy to see how people might see fracking as similar because both involve pipes underground. But interestingly, participants also mentioned fracking in relation to techniques without an underground component, including Enhanced Weathering and the air capture component of Direct Air Capture. I argue that the connection in people’s minds isn’t really about the technologies themselves: it’s something deeper, relating to trust in science and policy processes.

Many of our participants’ comments about fracking can be summed up with the phrase, “But they told us it was safe!” The ‘they’ to whom people referred wasn’t clearly defined, but it seemed to reflect some general misgivings about an imbalance of power involving vested interests. Study participants said that people in positions of power – including scientists, industries and policy-makers – had tried to pursue fracking without taking their concerns into account. This made them feel less trusting of other new technologies.

If negative perceptions of fracking have indeed spilled over onto other technologies, this could make it more challenging to build a social license for innovations which are needed to tackle climate change.

Future questions

Our conclusions are very preliminary, as we relied on an opportunistic sample and secondary analysis of existing data. More empirical work is required to test our conclusions in more detail. The data was collected before the UK moratorium was issued, so we also need to understand whether that had an impact. Do people now trust policy-makers more to represent their interests? Have people forgotten about fracking as media attention has waned, or will it become an enduring symbol of scientific controversy in the same way as nuclear power or genetically modified food?

We also need to understand whether these effects extend to technologies that are relatively dissimilar to one another. A small amount of our data suggests that spillover effects might extend to technologies without an underground component, but this needs testing in more detail. Perhaps simply framing something as an ‘energy/climate technology’ is enough to place it in the same basket in people’s minds? If so, how widely could these spillover effects extend?

Where does this leave us?

Strong political support for fracking left many people feeling like they were being ignored. It, therefore, isn’t surprising that people are concerned about the same thing happening as we try to develop new technologies. Trust needs to be rebuilt. Developing and maintaining a ‘social license’ requires more than just communicating the benefits of a proposal: it requires the ability to listen. We can learn from people and communities, and their forms of knowledge are just as valid as those of experts.

We already know that genuine two-way engagement with people and communities, in which their concerns are taken seriously and acted upon, can improve the legitimacy and ethicality of projects and technologies. Now, we need to understand that a failure to build a social license could have knock-on consequences to a whole host of other technologies. This will be crucial as we seek to scale up innovations such as hydrogen networks, geothermal energy and Carbon Dioxide Removal. Tackling climate change is one of the most important challenges facing humanity, but if we want to get it right, we need to start genuinely listening.