Carbon Briefing: The coming PR battle over shale gas

  • 13 Aug 2012, 11:33
  • Robin Webster

Shale - not just a rock.

Although the shale gas industry is a big deal in the US, shale gas development in the UK is at a fairly preliminary stage. But with the government divided over gas policy, and industry and environmental groups positioning themselves over the issue, the PR battle blazing over shale gas in the States may be on its way over here.

Although there are many more energy conferences than it's possible for any one person to attend, one in particular caught our eye last week, because it offers an interesting insight into what's preoccupying the embryonic UK shale gas industry.

According to its webpage, the London-based Unconventional Gas and the Environment Conference, to be held in September, will discuss:

"Combating misconceptions and communicating opportunities: unblocking obstacles to [shale gas] project approval by engaging stakeholders on the environmental impact of unconventional gas"

Sessions include: "Tackling misinformation" about environmental and human health risks associated with fracking; "Winning the argument with the local community" and how to respond to "misinformed citizen journalists blogging".

In the US, there is a PR battle under way over shale - an article in the Huffington Post from DeSmogBlog editor Brendan DeMelle has accused the US shale gas industry of using ad-hominem attacks against journalists, and employing ex-military 'psychological warfare' operatives in its attempts to overcome local and national opposition. Industry representatives apparently believe they are responding to a "war on shale gas". It all sounds rather un-British.

What about the UK?

It's generally accepted that opposition from local communities could slow the growth of European shale gas, particularly in densely populated countries like the UK. However, the shale gas industry in the UK is at is less developed than in the States. There is scant evidence of any military-style secret psychological tactics over here.

There has, however, been a lot of talk about shale, which hasn't lacked for prominent advocates. Author Matt Ridley has argued that "the environmental and economic benefits of shale gas could be vast" and has championed the technology, including in a report for climate skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Energy economist and chair of new government advisory body the Natural Capital Committee, Dieter Helm, says shale gas is " critical for the transformation of the energy system". There's a lot of enthusiasm in certain quarters, although some of the claims made about the potential for UK shale have ended up looking over-optimistic.

On the other hand, environmental groups are not keen, arguing shale gas poses a threat to the environment and to human health. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF have all expressed their opposition. The film "Gasland", which documents environmental problems with the US fracking industry, has gained a significant amount of attention in the UK, even as its accuracy has been challenged by the US oil and gas industry. For an even-handed if slightly exhausting assessment of claim and counter-claim about the film, try this Greenwire piece in the New York Times.

Official UK studies have assessed the potential and risks of shale gas expansion in the UK - notably a report from the UK Parliament's Energy and Climate Change Committee in May 2011, and a government-commissioned report into whether fracking causes earthquakes. Both concluded that providing the industry is effectively regulated, shale gas exploration is unlikely to pose a threat to human health or the local environment - perhaps reflecting an expectation that the UK will enforce stricter controls than the US.

The protesters and the lobbyists

Last November, oil and gas company Cuadrilla announced it had made a significant shale gas find in Lancashire, pushing shale up the media agenda and prompting a string of articles and conferences on the subject. The news also fired local opposition. Cuadrilla's plans to undertake fracking in the home counties town of Balcombe has faced determined resistance from the local community.

Fracking even has its own devoted activist group. Frack Off opposes fracking in the UK and what it calls "extreme energy". The group organises protests against the extraction of shale gas where protesters block the operation of equipment and machinery. Frack Off told us it has no funding and is run by volunteers, but the group is in the process of applying for funding and it is "confident [it'll] receive some moderate financial help in the coming months".

For the lobbyists, energy consultant Nick Grealy of No Hot Air, a pro-shale gas blog and energy consultancy, has been out there arguing for the benefits of the technology. No Hot Air specialises "in public perception and acceptance issues of shale energy worldwide" and counts Cuadrilla as one of its clients. Grealy says No Hot Air is funded by a "range of organisations with an interest in energy policy".

Tougher areas of communication

Presumably there's also plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying going on. As we reported at the time, there was a lot of discussion at the industry-led Shale Gas Environment Summit in May this year about local and national campaigns against the extraction of shale gas. One speaker announced there has been "media hysteria" about fracking, and that the process needs "rebranding".

It looks as though those discussions are continuing within the industry. The sponsors for September's Unconventional Gas and the Environment Conference are PPS Group - an "independent communications agency working in the tougher areas of communication" - and the US-based oil company Halliburton.

PPS has been working with the shale gas company Cuadrilla, including managing its website, and lists one of its achievements as "securing support from key politicians for shale gas exploration for Cuadrilla". Halliburton is "one of the world's largest providers of products and services to the energy industry" with 70,000 employees in 80 countries. It is heavily invested in the US shale gas industry, providing infrastructure for fracking.

The coming debate

All of this might suggest that shale gas's opponents and proponents are gearing up for a PR fight. It's predictable that an ambitious industry will look to address barriers to its development, and perhaps equally predictable that there will be opposition to the idea of fracking infrastructure being constructed in the UK. Now it seems like battle lines are being drawn.

The government has been vague about how it views shale gas. Some media reports have suggested it has been dismissive, but the Treasury's enthusiasm for gas may well be tied to an alternative view - in at least some corners.

Over the next few months, the British Geological Survey is likely to announce a new estimate for onshore shale gas in the UK, the  Energy and Climate Change Committee is due to release a second report on shale gas and, perhaps most importantly, the  government has announced it will release a more detailed policy on gas in the Autumn.

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