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
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
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,
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
to announce a new estimate for onshore shale gas in 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.