Pollwatch: Beware the other F-word
By Aahad Ali, Consultant

This week, council officials in Lancashire will decide whether to grant approval for oil and gas exploration firm Cuadrilla to drill for shale gas at two sites in the county.

It hasn’t quite been the ‘shale revolution’ promised by David Cameron since he made a speech on the subject last year, but this decision could have significant repercussions for the industry, changing the landscape of the UK (both figuratively and literally) forever.

While fracking is mired in controversy, public opinion is by no means settled on the issue.

Fracking - The big picture

Fracking has been in the public consciousness since the turn of the decade, particularly after two small earthquakes hit a town near Blackpool in 2011 as a result of the process. Chatham House released a rather prescient report on the issues posed by fracking a year prior, noting that “large-scale disruptions caused by drilling and hydraulic fracturing are likely to generate huge local opposition.”

All this led to a similar report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering reviewing the industry, and the resulting creation of a new set of regulations for the sector in the UK.

Fracking in the US has even reached the higher echelons of pop culture – Matt Damon starred in a movie about it in 2012.

Following this period of uncertainty and a ban in the interim, with the Council having already recommended approval for one site last week, it appears that the drills are being polished and readied again. Standing in at PMQs, Chancellor George Osborne said of fracking; “For this country to turn its back on one of these great resources…would be to basically condemn us to higher energy bills and not as many jobs.”

So what do the public think?

Shale it isn’t so

ComRes research earlier this year found that the public are broadly split over the issue; two in five (42%) say they would support energy companies fracking for natural gas in Britain, while more than a third (35%) oppose, and around a quarter say they ‘don’t know’ (23%).

While a seven-point difference, if we dig a little deeper, the data provide a telling story.

When asked if they would back a local candidate who supported the prospect of fracking in their local area, British adults are more than twice as likely to say they would be less inclined to vote for the ‘pro-fracking’ candidate (31%) than more so (13%). Though it is important to note that more than two in five say this would make no difference (44%).

Bring on the NIMBYs

All this boils down to mobilisation and the trade-off between national and local politics.

Broader coverage in the UK has focused largely on protests against fracking, particularly the Balcombe demonstrations in 2013 (many will recall watching Caroline Lucas being carried away by police at the time). Since then, the shale gas industry has grown rapidly; particularly in North America. Unlike the USA however, where landowners have profited from the process, there is a lack of clarity on the income proceeds for residents - with the Crown, rather than the locals, set to have control of oil and gas rights.

Therefore, the Government and energy firms alike will need to be wary of the many precedents they will set once fracking gets underway in areas with a high level of population density.

Despite the planning committee recommending approval for the site at Preston New Road, local campaigners welcomed the same committee’s decision last Monday to recommend blocking another Cuadrilla application at Roseacre, on the grounds of the impact it would have on traffic.

With fracking being highlighted as a politically divisive issue, the decision to block the Roseacre application on the grounds of local traffic will embolden campaigners to look at alternative arguments (beyond the environment) going forward.

Is there a problem?

A proposed solution to NIMBYism - or democratic local opposition, depending on your perspective – is for companies to share the profits with the communities around the sites. In fact, another firm, Ineos, promised £2.5bn of the proceeds from fracking to local communities in a bid to win support among residents in Scotland earlier this year.

This creates a real minefield going forward– who receives the benefits? The Parish? The Council? The County? A newly formed local charitable trust?

With Thomas Piketty’s "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" emerging last year as one of the landmark socioeconomic critiques – it reached number one in the New York Times non-fiction Best Sellers List and was voted as Business Book of the Year by the FT - questions about trust, inequality and who profits from capital (in this case natural gas reserves) are stronger than ever. Whatever your view of Piketty, these issues clearly need careful management, especially when key precedents are being set.

While Ineos may be taking the first step to open this dialogue, quite often it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. For such a technical and already political subject as this, understanding sentiment is therefore key - as evidenced by the quarter of all adults who say they don’t know enough about fracking to have an opinion on it. Indeed the information gulf was reinforced just yesterday when a video emerged of an ‘anti-fracking’ protester expressing concern about “where they’re going to put the radioactive waste”. Oh dear.

Perhaps when the first drills start whirring people may then have an opinion. Until then, whatever happens this week, stakeholders from all sides need to prepare for a lengthy conversation on fracking.