The government has released a report on the potential local impacts of shale gas in response to a freedom of information request. Several parts are heavily redacted, leading to accusations that the government is trying to hide fracking’s possible downsides.
But the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it’s concerned there is a risk that “disclosure of early thinking, could close down discussion”.
Such sensitivities are very real – although many people support the idea of fracking for shale gas, polling suggests opposition rises as the idea of the technology gets closer to home.
The Defra study sets out to try and find out – among other things – what effect shale gas production has on house prices.
The report cites four North American studies that find shale gas developments can have an impact on local house prices. Three studies looking at Texas, Pittsburgh, and Alberta, Canada found nearby shale gas wells could decrease house prices by between 3 and 14 per cent. A fourth study focused on Pennsylvania found fracking could increase property prices in some cases, but deflate them in others.
Defra cautions against applying those studies’ findings to the UK context, however. Among other reasons, it points to differences in the property markets in the two countries.
Nevertheless, Defra probably does have a view on the likely effect in the UK – we just don’t know what it is. Three sections of the report that may discuss the potential impact on house prices in the UK have been redacted.
Responding to the freedom of information request that pushed the government into releasing the report, Defra argues:
“… we have had to balance the public interest in withholding the information against the public interest in disclosure … there is a strong public interest in withholding the information because it is important that officials can consider implications of potential impacts and scenarios around the development of the shale gas industry and to develop options without the risk that disclosure of early thinking, could close down discussion.”
This isn’t the first time the department has avoided releasing information about the effect of energy infrastructure on house prices. Last month, Defra declined a request to release research on windfarms’ impact on property prices because “the reports are only partially complete and any conclusions drawn from such unfinished analysis would be misleading”.
Despite the absence of an official prognosis on the effect of fracking on house prices, the public seems to have already formed opinions about hosting shale gas developments in their communities.
A range of polls have explored whether or not people are happy to have fracking in their areas. Most suggest that while there’s broad support for shale gas extraction, enthusiasm wanes the closer people’s homes are to the developments.
A Department of Energy and Climate Change’s tracker survey, conducted in March, shows 29 per cent of people support shale gas extraction. 22 per cent of respondents said they opposed shale gas extraction, while 44 per cent said they neither supported nor opposed. Similarly, a University of Nottingham survey finds a majority support shale gas development: 49 per cent of respondents say extraction should be allowed, with 31 per cent opposed.
The same survey found support is decreasing, however. In July 2013, 58 per cent said extraction should be allowed.
Most recently, a UK Onshrore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) poll found 57 per cent of respondents supported shale gas production. The poll question came primed with positive information about shale gas that may suggest careful interpretation, however. The full question reads:
“Natural gas from shale is found both onshore and offshore, typically a mile or more underground. For the rest of the survey please answer in relation to onshore shale only. Producing natural gas from shale uses a technique called hydraulic fracturing (often called fracking). This involves creating tiny fractures in the rock deep underground, freeing the gas. Fractures are created by pumping a fluid containing 99.5% water and sand and 0.5% approved non-hazardous chemicals down at high pressure. The British Geological Survey has estimated that the UK has 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from shale. If just 10% of this could be recovered, it would be enough to meet the UK’s demand for natural gas for nearly 50 years or to heat the UK’s homes for over 100 years. From what you know, do you think the UK should produce natural gas from shale?”
Nonetheless, it seems a majority of the public support fracking at least abstractly, at the moment.
But it’s a different story when people are asked whether they would want it in their local community. We previously looked at a range of shale gas surveys, and found that most polls show a majority of people oppose the idea of fracking in their local area:
Carbon Brief’s own polling from August last year found just 18 per cent would support a shale gas well within 10 miles of their home. This wasn’t a result unique to shale gas – enthusiasm for all forms of energy infrastructure fell dramatically if people were asked about it being installed nearby.
Similarly, a YouGov poll from December last year found support for shale gas production was very sensitive to how far away shale gas developments were from people’s homes – with much lower support for developments within a mile than “elsewhere in the county”.
With a somewhat fractious debate over the UK’s shale prospects, the government may be wise to withhold work in progress analysis from the public domain. On the other hand, many people already hold opinions about shale gas, and the scale of opposition from the public, sometimes on the basis of not much information at all, already presents problems to the industry.
Ultimately, whether it’s wind power or fracking, the more robust information about the local impacts of energy infrastructure that makes it into the public domain, including its impact on house prices, the better informed the public will be.
Update, 11th August, 14.15: The chart was updated to fit our house style. Update, 12th August, 08.40: The attribution of the UKOOG poll was corrected.