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US citizens less well informed on fracking than those in UK

26 Feb 2018
Do you associate the following with shale gas?
Do you associate the following with shale gas?

To frack, or not to frack: that is the question. And what a heated question it is. In both the UK and the US fracking regularly hits the headlines, but people’s concerns about this unconventional gas extraction method are not necessarily the same on either side of the Atlantic. Now a study has compared public perception and beliefs surrounding fracking in both the US and the UK.

People in the UK are generally better informed on the facts surrounding fracking, the results show, but less willing to take a positive or negative stance than people in the US. Energy security is a massive incentive for supporters of fracking in the UK, but less so in the US. The results also showed that concerns around fracking are highly nuanced in both countries and that there’s a need for better communication of the issues.

Fracking – injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals into oil and gas wells to force more of the fuel to flow out – has been around since 1949. But it is only since the late 1990s, with the advent of horizontal drilling, that fracking has really taken off, enabling the exploitation of low-porosity sandstones and shales that were previously uneconomically viable to extract from.

Today 95% of the new wells drilled in the US are hydraulically fractured, and the output makes up 43% of the oil and 67% of the natural gas production in the US. But this fracking boom hasn’t been welcomed by all, and environmental and health concerns have made the technique contentious. Back in 2014 New York state banned fracking, and in March 2017 Maryland followed suit.

Meanwhile, in the UK low volume fracking has been used in around 200 onshore oil and gas wells since the 1980s, but it is only since 2008, when licences were awarded for onshore shale gas exploration, that fracking really started to attract public attention. To date only one well in the UK – the Cuadrilla Resources shale gas exploration well near Blackpool in Lancashire – has used high-volume fracking, but this was halted after a few months due to seismic activity concerns.

So how do people in the US and the UK feel about fracking? Darrick Evensen from Cardiff University, UK, and his colleagues carried out an online survey in September 2014, asking 3823 UK nationals and 1625 people from the US a similar set of questions about their understanding, feelings and beliefs surrounding fracking.

In the US, 60% of respondents were in favour of fracking, 25% were against it, and 16% said they didn’t know. By contrast, only 44% of UK respondents were in favour, 27% were against and 29% said they didn’t know. One factor that may contribute to the differing opinions between the two countries is the source of people’s information.

“Research in the UK suggests that national newspapers are more important as an information source, whereas in the US local newspapers tend to be a more predominant information source, particularly in areas where shale gas development is occurring,” said Evensen.

The surveys also revealed that people in the UK tend to be more accurately informed – 72% of the UK sample could answer factual questions about fracking accurately whereas only 36% of the US sample answered the same questions correctly – but less willing to take a position and express an opinion.

“One conjecture is that political leaning, both on a conservative-liberal scale and republican/democrat or conservative/labour split, might more strongly relate to support or opposition to fracking in the US than the UK,” said Evensen, whose findings are published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) . “Therefore, amongst people who do not know much about fracking, this political leaning is coming out more strongly in the US as causing people to take sides.”

Politics aside, the survey results clearly showed that energy security was a predominant concern in the UK, with those who thought that fracking would increase energy security being three times more likely to support fracking than people who held the same belief in the US.

“There is not a natural gas supply issue in the US, whereas in the UK a large proportion of natural gas is imported and people are presumably aware that supply problems from Russia would be felt throughout Europe,” said Evensen.

Looking forward, Evensen and his colleagues hope that a greater understanding of which fracking issues really matter to people will help government, industry, environmental organisations and activists to share the appropriate information and start a more open two-way dialogue, enabling more informed public decision-making.

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