Fracking has hardly any public support – but opponents have a tough choice
Carbon Brief’s new poll shows how little support there is for shale gas fracking in the UK. But while the poll suggests supporters of shale have problems to overcome, it also shows that anti-frackers have a real challenge ahead.
Shale gas wells have the lowest support out of any domestic source of energy. Fewer than one in five would support the building of a shale well within 10 miles of their home: that compares with more than half who support wind turbines.
But opposition to shale isn’t yet solid. There are still 40% who aren’t sure either way about local fracking, and fewer opponents than there are for both coal and nuclear. The argument can still swing either way.
And dig into the reasons for people’s opinions about shale, and it’s clear that both sides have problems.
Support for fracking is on shaky ground
The reasons why people support shale are strongly angled towards its being a crucial source of energy for the country.
This is a winning argument if the debate happens on a national level. Everyone knows we need some kind of energy source, so if people agree that shale can provide secure, low-cost domestic energy for the country, it’s hard to find a national-level argument that beats it*.
But this only works if fracking will happen in, say, desolate and sparsely populated places. It’s less effective if fracking happens where people live and you’re facing emotional** arguments.
The reasons for opposition to shale indeed show the challenge for its supporters.
Earthquakes and contaminated drinking water not only sound horrible for people living near wells – they’re also outrageous enough to mobilise outrage across the country. If the country believes that fracking causes so much local damage (regardless of whether it does), the benefits of energy security aren’t enough to win the argument.
Anti-frackers have to make a tough decision
But this is also a major problem for anti-frackers – who have a big decision to make.
There are broadly two ways of framing an anti-shale campaign. It can either be national and calculating, focused on greenhouse gas emissions and the lack of affordably extractable gas; or it can be local and emotional, focused on earthquakes and contaminated water supplies.
The national argument is losing right now. About twice as many say they support fracking because it reduces our dependence on imports, than say they oppose shale gas because it increases carbon emissions (perhaps it should have included methane, but I doubt that would have swung much). Even fewer are worried about whether there’s enough to extract or the cost of doing so.
So campaigners may choose instead to make their arguments local and emotional. This would be natural given current opinion and the potential potency of the arguments (ironically it’s the same approach that opponents of wind farms have taken)
But if you’re really opposing shale because of climate change or because you think it’s inefficient, relying on a different argument is risky. A few successful and safe shale extractions in the UK could undermine your campaign. In fact, media coverage over the last week or so has already begun to dismiss risks of earthquakes and contaminated water. If a campaign is based on earthquakes etc, and those don’t come to pass, it’s going to be in trouble after a year or two (though it’s true plenty of anti-wind farm campaigns haven’t been derailed by contradictory evidence).
Of course campaigns can try doing both: start with earthquakes and, if they don’t come to pass, fall back on climate change. But given how much less traction the climate argument has at the moment, it would need a lot of work to become credible. And switching arguments like that is always risky: you look opportunistic and unprincipled. Doing the two at the same time could mean doing both badly.
For now fracking is facing a tough time. Local protests make every new extraction controversial and politically difficult, and the fracking industry is struggling on the arguments it has to win. But the country is still largely undecided, and despite the current lack of support, evidence of successful extraction could undermine what is currently the key argument against it. Opponents may be doing well at the moment but the source of that support may not be stable.
* By beats it, I mean an argument that’s likely to win out publicly, politically and in the media. Other arguments, like climate change, may be at least as important – but are likely to be defeated in public debate.
** By emotional, I don’t mean illogical or not supported by evidence. I mean it triggers emotional responses, rather than relying on thought-through arguments– roughly Kahnemann’s System 1 against his System 2.