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Transparency may help win approval of shale protestors

Hard-core opposition to fracking isn’t going away. But transparency and engagement can win approval for shale gas from the broader public

Europe's anti-shale-gas protesters are not to be underestimated. Some are local residents airing real worries about what fracking might do to their local environment. Others are publicity-hungry anti-shale activists aiming to promote renewable energy – or anything else that doesn’t involve fossil fuels or those icons of the capitalist system, oil companies.

It’s easy to dismiss the activist camp, especially when they don’t get their fracking facts right. But the industry is starting to realise that ignoring the protesters is perilous, because they are having a profound effect on the politics of shale gas in Europe. It is the public, as well as the politicians, who will decide which projects go ahead. Take Romania. The US government thinks it has 51 trillion cubic feet of shale to exploit. Chevron has been planning to drill in the town of Pungesti, in the country’s northeast. Activity there has picked up – but not Chevron’s. Thousands of protesters have forced the company to shelve its campaign. A local referendum, due as Petroleum Economist went to press, was to decide the issue.

In the UK, an anti-shale gas protest group organised a six-week demonstration between July and August outside Cuadrilla Resources’s site in Balcombe, southeast England (where Cuadrilla was hunting for oil, not gas). Hundreds of supporters visited the camp. A common refrain at the rallies was that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would pollute water supplies and cause earthquakes. Industry insiders can scoff at those claims all they like. But the protests succeeded in staining the operation with a dirty tag. It got serious, too. In August clashes broke out between protesters and police drafted in to secure the drilling site. The fracas led to about 30 arrests, including of Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s sole member of the UK parliament.

When I visited the camp in August the trucked-in activists (few were genuine locals) made it clear their mission was to safeguard investment in renewable energy. They believed fracking would divert funding from renewables. Laudable as the vision is, the Balcombe protesters didn’t have much grasp of the UK’s energy mix now. They didn’t have much of a plan about how to bring about their 100% renewable future, either.

How widespread is such opposition to fracking? “We feel like (the protest) was a real minority and it didn’t represent the local people,” says Andrew Quarles, head of exploration at Cuadrilla. “We’ve done some polling and we’ve seen as people learn more about hydraulic fracturing they see the benefits of it (out)weigh potential risks.”

UK public opinion in general is beginning to turn in favour of shale gas, according to a recent University of Nottingham study. Backing up Quarles’s thesis, the study showed that approval of shale gas has been growing alongside better public awareness. Perceptions are changing. In April 2012, for example, nearly 58% of respondents associated fracking with earthquakes. Eighteen months later, it was 25%.

John Blaymires, boss of IGas, another driller, told Petroleum Economist the UK fracking debate may be “a lightning rod” for shale-gas opposition, but attitudes are changing. “The debate is maturing and it’s moving more to a debate around (energy) security. Whilst people identify with renewables they aren’t going to replace hydrocarbons in the foreseeable future,” Blaymires said. “With closures of coal-fired power stations and the time scale involved in nuclear, shale gas potential offers a significant part of the UK’s energy mix. It becomes almost irresponsible not to investigate if this can work.”

Nonetheless, the protests have scored some hits for the opposition, according to the University of Nottingham survey. Between March 2012 and July 2013, the share of respondents who associated fracking with water contamination fell from 45% to 35%. After the Balcombe protests, it was back up to the earlier level. “This may have important implications for the politics of fracking in the UK, if the anti-fracking lobby come to believe that highly visible forms of protest at potential sites for hydraulic fracturing are the most effective means of changing the public mood,” the university said.

Fracking firms find this frustrating, to say the least. “What’s partly concerning to us is that you often find objectors aren’t from the area,” says Kamlesh Parmar, chief executive of 3Legs Resources. “It’s almost like a concerted effort to try and resist an activity because a group has a particular slant on its view.” The job of the companies, he says, is to answer questions, to educate and to provide an alternative view. “All we can do is to provide accurate information and answer questions.”

Industry response

The industry’s response to the protests varies from company to company. Not all of them see engagement with the public as the best strategy. Chevron is taking legal action against protesters occupying one of its sites in eastern Poland, where a group of protesters in Zurawlów have blockaded the firm’s drilling site since June to stop it from drilling. The protesters say Chevron had not consulted local residents and that extracting shale gas will damage the environment.

UK company IGas is also the target of anti-fracking protests in Barton Moss, near Manchester. “They’re absolutely entitled to their opinions and to hold us to account. On the other hand there’s also an expectation that we can go about our business lawfully and legally,” Blaymires said. “There’s been a lot of effort to engage with the community. We’re trying to build trust and transparency with what we’re doing.”

Hansch van der Velden, corporate communications director at Dutch firm Gasunie, thinks that kind of contact is critical. If you don’t engage with the public to win its trust, he warned peers at a conference recently, “you might end up not having a business case”.

Too many firms, though, still prefer to blame the media for stoking European opposition. When that happens, it’s a sure sign that someone is losing the argument. Listening to Van der Velden offer advice to other companies in Brussels recently reminded me of the way a teenager explains to an out-of-touch grandparent what is and is not considered politically correct in the modern world.

“Engage early and listen to what they (the public) say. Don’t just look polite, actually listen,” he said. “Don’t underestimate people, they will understand. Companies needed to get out of their comfort zone and start engaging, he said, and do it often and even online. At least some of the firms now realise that they made a hash of things when fracking first entered the public consciousness.

“As an industry we should have done a better job from the beginning of being more transparent but the world has changed a lot in the past five years,” Wolf Regener, chief executive of BNK Petroleum told Petroleum Economist. “There are certain people that you’ll never convince because they don’t want any kind of carbon fuel. Eventually people will come around. It just takes time.” 

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