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.

  1. Mark Pack says:

    A very interesting post. It strikes me there is a strong parallel with the GM foods debate where anti-GM people have a choice of arguments too – ones about short term harm (it’s bad for you, things can get horribly out of control etc.) and ones about long term principle (e.g. the business model behind GM modification and patenting). The former is the more eye-catching and great for generating support. The risk is that support seeps away if the promised doom and gloom doesn’t materialise.

    • Michael Kenward says:

      “The risk is that support seeps away if the promised doom and gloom doesn’t materialise.”

      How would you assess the attitudes to nuclear power on this basis?

      Self-inflicted wounds by Chernobyl’s operators playing er, Russian roulette, and a Japanese utility that forgot that earthquakes and tsunamis sometimes go together?

      Without those two examples of daftness that don’t apply to most of the planet, we would have seen none of the “promised doom and gloom”.

      • Leo says:

        Interesting comparison. What I think we’ve seen with nuclear is a steady increase in trust/support, starting from a very low base. See: (I don’t know the post-Japan polling well but from what I’ve seen it didn’t make a huge difference).

        The slowness of the increase does as you suggest indicate that opposition can take a long time to seep away – even without further incidents. My guess is nuclear would be a bit different from fracking though, as it has more apocalyptic potential, so the threat of disasters will get more attention than the localised problems of fracking (setting aside the greenhouse gas consequences). But it’s a useful comparison anyway.

  2. Michael Kenward says:

    Any watcher of public opinion on shale might like to check out this:

    Warming to shale gas – The University of Nottingham

    “A report by experts at The University of Nottingham has shown that the British public is beginning to warm to the idea of shale gas. This doesn’t mean shale gas is a wildly popular alternative to other forms of energy but opinion appears to be shifting.”

    By the way, the “poll” of people from Balcombe, the next village from here, who are against fracking is bogus. The 82 per centre number touted by, among others, that well known engineering expert Vivienne Westwood, ignores the fact that few people in Balcombe “voted”. Crunch the numbers in a different way and the result changes dramatically.

    Here is one local’s analysis, as quoted in the local newspaper:

    “We have approximately 1,700 people who live in Balcombe, 750 houses were surveyed, only 33 percent bothered to reply, of this 33 per cent – 82 per cent were against fracking, so what did the other 66 per cent think about fracking, obviously not concerned enough to warrant a reply to the issue in question!”

    My own take on these numbers suggests that the real number “against” is about 200 homes, or around 30 per cent. So 70 per cent are: in favour; don’t know; or don’t care. Not the sort of thing to wave under the nose of a media snapper seeking a headline.

    So, good on you for looking at the numbers with your brain engaged.

    • Leo says:

      Thanks, didn’t know about that Nottingham poll.

      As for the local ‘poll’ – completely agree that it sounds dubious! Any poll where people decide whether to respond on the basis of what the poll’s about is going to be dodgy. Not sure I’d go as far as say all the 70% others must be in agreement or don’t know or don’t care: some opponents might have meant to reply but didn’t get round to it; or cared a lot but were too busy or didn’t think the poll worth their time. But the trouble with the sampling of the poll is we’ll never know, so it’s a bit pointless.

  1. […] for the wording and layout of specific questions to be leading – for example, see this post on how public responses to fracking depend on how it is framed; how a person’s perception of […]