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Public backing vital for EU shale gas

The future of shale gas E&P in Europe is in the industry’s own hands: it must accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner

THE SHALE-gas industry faces bans and moratoria in France, New York State, Nova Scotia and Quebec; and possible restrictions in New Brunswick, in the watersheds for New York City and Syracuse, and elsewhere in Europe.

Some in the industry have denounced the movie Gasland, with its images of lit drinking water, as the worst kind of propaganda, but demonstrations and objections to shale-gas projects continue.

In New York, prominent movie stars have joined the Don't Frack with my Water! campaign. In the UK, radio comedy show the News Quiz has featured jokes about the House of Commons report giving shale-gas exploration and production (E&P) an environmental clean bill of health at about the same time as drilling was suspended because of a minor earthquake.

If there is an industry campaign to win hearts and minds here, it is not clear how many points it would score out of 10.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) once published Rules and Guidelines for Effective Risk Communication. Rule 1 was: "Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner." Both the industry and regulators would be really well advised to bear in mind that principle. When lawmaking becomes too remote from public concerns, it does not enjoy public support. Similarly, when industries with new technologies think they can ignore or bypass real public concerns, they tend to generate a reaction and a backlash.

Licence to operate

It is favourable public opinion that gives an industry its medium- and longer-term licence to operate.

Members of the public live with risks every day. They cross roads, drive cars, live and go to work in cities, and take their chances with avoiding ill health. They may understand and accept far more in the way of risk than officialdom supposes, but this depends on good information and a relationship of trust. Where either is absent, negative public reaction is to be expected.

The first shale-gas wells drilled in the US escaped EPA regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. But those in the industry that lobbied hard for that exemption may eventually come to regret it, because it may have encouraged a drill first, think later approach, rather than requiring the industry to address environmental issues carefully from the outset.

The industry has also been very secretive about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing – not a good way to build up trust and making it almost inevitable that the first stories of water contamination would generate more of a reaction.

It is also not helped by a highly defensive approach to environmental issues: either asserting that they don't exist, or questioning the motives of the academic and regulatory studies that raise the questions.

The nuclear industry used to claim that nuclear energy would be too cheap to meter; but that seems some time ago now. Some in the hydrogen industry like to say that the Hindenburg disaster was nothing to do with hydrogen; but, again, that won't really wash with the public. Most industries have some risks and some environmental impacts, and they would often be better employed addressing those directly and working out how to contain them.

The shale-gas story so far may in part be a response to a highly polarised political system in the US, where you are expected to be either a fully committed red-necked shale-gas booster, or an etiolated tree-hugging shale-gas sceptic. In Europe, there may still be a middle way worth pursuing.

A number of reports from credible universities and regulators have raised real environmental issues about the effects of shale-gas E&P, especially, but not exclusively, on water. EU regulators and European public opinion will expect any company that is serious about undertaking shale-gas E&P in a member state to address those environmental issues carefully, one by one, and show how they can be properly addressed in exploration and operating conditions.

If that happens, there is every prospect that shale gas E&P in the EU will be allowed to take place.

Responsible E&P

Shale gas ticks many boxes for European governments that face the same pressures of energy-supply security, public revenues, the need for lower-carbon fuels and diversifying their energy mix. Public opinion towards shale gas in the EU is not monolithic and individual governments in countries such as the UK and Poland, reflecting local public opinion, have shown themselves willing to support responsible E&P.

But if this nascent industry simply attempts to ride roughshod over public opinion and to press on without properly addressing environmental issues, a local backlash is be expected, closely followed by the strict application of existing legislation and the passage of new laws and controls at the EU level.

Inevitably, European public opinion will be informed and affected by regulatory responses in the US and Canada, the EPA's report and the shale-gas industry's approach to concerns already raised. There remains much to play for and the industry's future is in its own hands.

William Wilson, barrister, Burges Salmon LLP.


Environmental regulation crucial to shale gas in EU

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