Fracking: the conversation continues


A guest blog authored by Josh Owens at Remarkable Engagement.

This week’s revelation that the Advertising Standards Authority was minded to censure an anti-fracking group for publishing misleading information underlines how easy it is for misinformation to spread when it comes to hydraulic fracturing.

The case in question was concluded after the group undertook not to use the leaflet again. The fact that the ASA was inclined to uphold a number of the complaints brought by a Lancashire resident will no doubt give further pause to people with legitimate concerns who are trying to find accurate information. Public debate on the topic can come across as a shouting match between two entrenched sides, and today’s news will not help.

This dynamic presents a real challenge for operators, at a time when the subject is set to grab attention again. Lancashire County Council, which just this week began consulting on a draft planning document for onshore oil and gas development, will soon determine Cuadrilla’s applications to test for gas at two new sites on the Fylde.

The applications have seen high levels of public response: opposition groups claim that more than 25,000 objections have been sent to Lancashire County Council. It is important to ask, though, how many respondents will have engaged properly with what is a very technical subject. It is very easy to take things that sound alarming at face value, especially when it relates to something close to home. It is much more difficult to keep an open mind, to critically analyse evidence and to engage with the science behind the subject.

That is the challenge that operators face as attention begins to focus on hydraulic fracturing once more. Continued government support seems likely, though it will be interesting to see how parties adjust the mood music in a general election year. The business lobby is gearing up in an effort to try to secure the benefits that domestic gas extraction promises: the formation of the Onshore Energy Services Group is evidence that British SMEs are keen to share in what could be a significant economic success story.

The prospect of financial rewards alone is unlikely to be enough for the industry to take root here in the way that it has in North America. The level of public interest suggests that people will need to be convinced that oil and gas can be safely extracted. In part, this will come if exploratory wells prove largely incident-free. More than that, though, operators need to continue to take public engagement extremely seriously as the industry develops. Full and frank discussions with communities, focused on fact and being honest about any potential impacts, will go a long way towards demonstrating their credibility.

(A fully referenced version of this article first appeared here and is reproduced by kind permission of Remarkable Engagement)