Fracking and public dialogue

Gas drill rig 19 April 2012

The controversial Blackpool 'fracking' - fracturing shale rock to extract gas - may continue after a government-appointed panel has concluded that proper guidelines and monitoring could ensure safe extraction. Test fracking by the Cuadrilla company triggered two earthquakes in April and May last year, but the panel believes any further tremors will be too small to cause structural damage above ground.

Shale gas is found in sedimentary rock, and can be extracted by pumping in high-pressure water and chemicals to fracture the shale rock layers. However, concerns have been raised both about the possibility of triggering earthquakes and contaminating groundwater with fracking fluids.

The government sees shale gas as a valuable part of future energy supply in the UK, while protesters highlight potential risks and environmental impact.

But gauging the public attitude to fracking is complex – not least because 'the public' comprises a multitude of groups with different concerns regarding risk, argues Professor Nick Pidgeon at the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University.

The research group has been studying public risk perception, risk communication and public engagement with science and technology, partly funded by the ESRC – as well as investigating public acceptability of future energy system change under the UK Energy Research Centre.

"Our research shows that people remain very negative about hydrocarbons - because they view them as a polluting finite resource, and yesterday's technology - and do not see shale gas or other forms of unconventional fossil fuel as the solution to either energy security or climate change," says Professor Pidgeon.

Research also shows that traditional risk assessments often overlook factors influencing public concerns – such as whether the risk is perceived as controllable, the amount of trust in risk management, and the effect of media reporting. People are often distrustful of large outside companies who come to exploit the resources in their local area without proper consultation, and ask themselves where developments are likely to lead.

"Only focusing on the engineering concepts of risk – probabilities, damage estimates etc – is unlikely to meet people’s actual concerns about fracking," says Professor Pidgeon. "Risk communication must aim for a genuine dialogue with the affected public, and one that aims to build trust through exploring people's different values, and meeting their concerns about uncertainty or governance arrangements."

This could be done by subjecting new and controversial technologies such as fracking to a process of 'responsible innovation' – as currently used, for example, with some biotechnology and climate geoengineering applications - which would include both public dialogue and extended ethical review, alongside the more traditional engineering risk assessments.