Cuadrilla survey shows that the majority of local people do not support fracking

Cuadrilla Resources recently commissioned BritainThinks to conduct 1,000 telephone interviews with people living in three council areas – Blackpool, Fylde and West Lancashire. The stated purpose of the survey was to understand peoples’ attitudes about shale gas, together with their beliefs about the potential benefits and risks associated with the gas’s extraction.

You can find the results published by BritainThinks here.

Firstly it’s interesting that the survey methodology described does NOT state that those interviewed were a RANDOM sample. It merely says

The sample was weighted to be representative of the demographics of the three areas combined in terms of age and gender.

We would be a lot more inclined to have confidence in the results if they had stated that the respondents were selected at random. Otherwise the possibility that they were selective in the respondents they contacted, or pre-screened them by asking questions like “Have you been contacted by any anti-fracking groups?” exists.

Possibly the most important finding, which throws the validity of any other finding from the survey into a very dubious light is that very nearly half (48%) of respondents indicated the they either know very little (23%) or know nothing (25%) about Natural Gas from Shale.

However, let’s carry on and see what Cuadrilla’s survey wants to tell us.

Surprisingly given that only 52% of people professed to know anything much about fracking, 55% of respondents were still able to respond to the question “Based on what you know now, what do you think are the potential disadvantages of developing natural gas resources through fracking?” by mentioning at least one perceived disadvantage.

The survey then went on to ask “Now thinking about a number of potential disadvantages of fracking, how important do you think each of these are?”

The respondents appear to have been given a closed list consisting of

  • Risk of water pollution
  • Risk of gas leaks
  • Risk of causing earth tremors
  • Negative impact on climate change
  • Reduced investment in renewables
  • More traffic
  • Ugly buildings and wells

In each case at least 60% of respondents felt these issues were “Quite Important” or “Very Important”. For three of the options the figures were near enough 90%

  • Risk of water pollution – 91% very/quite important
  • Risk of gas leaks – 90% very/quite important
  • Risk of causing earth tremors – 87% very/quite important

We can see from this that there are serious concerns amongst those surveyed about the potential negative impacts presented to them by those undertaking the survey. There does not appear to have been any opportunity for other disadvantages to be added to the list by the respondents. We would note that health impacts are not mentioned in this list, and would suggest that if they had been it might well have been the greatest cause for concern. We can, however, see why Cuadrilla would not want to raise this issue in their survey.

The survey now turned to the perceived potential benefits of fracking, asking “Based on what you know now, what do you think are the potential benefits of developing natural gas resources through fracking?

Nearly half (49%) of respondents were unable to think of any, but 23% thought that it would result in cheaper energy. 11% thought job creation would be a benefit and 8 % thought we would be less reliant on gas from abroad. 7% though that the fact that fracking “offers a new/alternative source of energy” was a benefit, and 4% though that fracking was “cleaner than other fossil fuels

We can’t help feeling that Cuadrilla must have been rather disappointed with such a weak list. Given that it is widely accepted that shale gas will not deliver cheap gas or energy security for the UK, the value of these perceptions in bolstering Caudrilla’s rather weak benefit case looks rather poor.

Mary Ridell, writing in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph stated

“While Mr Davey [the Energy Secretary] keeps an open mind on the potential size of the reserves, he discounts ideas of a fracking revolution replicating the US boom. Sources say that he believes fracking offers no “silver bullet” and that extravagant claims for its potential are “ignorant and without evidence”.

So that leaves the 11% who believe Cuadrilla’s promises of decades of employment for local people, and the 4% people who have apparently not yet found out about the impact of fugitive methane emissions on shale gas’s flaky claims to be a green alternative to coal and oil.

The respondents were given another closed list and asked “Now thinking about a number of potential benefits of fracking, how important do you think each of these are?

  • Cheaper energy
  • Job creation
  • Investment in the local community
  • Reduced reliance on foreign gas
  • Developing new skills in the community
  • Can be developed without public money

The presentation of a closed list like this with the implication that these are real potential benefits of fracking is dubious. Of course people want cheaper energy, so we are not overly surprised that the response is that 87% thought it “Quite important” or “Very Important”. The problem is that nobody except Cuadrilla, and BritainThinks, appear to believe shale gas will deliver cheaper energy in the UK. Equally, along with the 86% surveyed we would all love there to be a profusion of jobs lasting the decades that Cuadrilla promised in their recent newsletter. You only have to read their own published research though to see that the Fylde is not going to have its employment issues solved by fracking and any gains will be unlikely to be anything like permanent. (Even their high-end scenario only shows any significant number of jobs lasting 11 years).

We are not sure, given Mr Osborne’s public commitment to giving tax breaks for shale gas development, how anybody could see that it “can be developed without public money” as being an advantage, (as evidently it can’t or Mr Osborne wouldn’t need to offer subsidies), yet fully 79% of the respondents appear not to realise that shale gas needs public subsidies to be economically viable and rated that as a “quite important” or “very important” benefit.

We can’t help feeling that if the list has included “World Peace” then that too would have scored highly, as the closed list contains things that any sane person would want, but very few things that Cuadrilla or fracking can even begin to deliver at a meaningful level.

Perhaps the most depressing piece of information to come out of the survey is that nearly half the people surveyed have little or no interest in learning more about either the potential advantages or disadvantages of shale gas.

So, how professional is this survey and how much should we rely on it? The sample size is large enough at a 1000+ to give a 95% confidence level. For those of you unfamiliar with market research that makes the response to the questions likely to be representative of what you would expect from the public at large. It does not mean, necessarily, that we can have confidence in the way the questions are phrased of the way in which BritainThinks have interpreted them.

Let’s look at the way they present their key findings

Knowledge levels in relation to natural gas from shale are lower than for other forms of energy tested in the survey. 15% feel they know a lot about natural gas from shale, and a further 38% feel they know a little.

We wouldn’t argue with that statement based on the survey results but we could easily rephrase it by saying “nearly half (48%) of those surveyed professed to know either little or nothing about the subject that we then went on to ask their opinions on”.

The most important potential disadvantages related to the exploration of shale gas reserves in Lancashire are earth tremors and water contamination

What they mean of course is “Respondents to this survey were most likely to identify the most important potential disadvantages related to the exploration of shale gas reserves in Lancashire as being earth tremors and water contamination”.

Given the general level of ignorance freely admitted to my nearly half the respondents this is not a nit-picking academic point. Surely BritainThinks ought to know better than to present the headline results in such a misleading way. They have turned the expressed opinions of respondents into a statement of fact that is simply not sustainable by their research.

The same point needs to be made about the statement

The most important potential benefits are cheaper energy and the possibility of local jobs as a result of the extraction industry

The next claim is that

There is a desire amongst local people to know more about both the potential benefits and the potential disadvantages of natural gas from shale.

It would be hard to argue with that conclusion but one could, with equal justification, draw the conclusion that “There is huge apathy towards learning anything at all about the potential benefits and the potential disadvantages of natural gas from shale” with nearly half those surveyed professing to be “Not very/Not at all interested”

The final claim is that

44% support continued exploration in the local area to understand the potential for natural gas from shale in the UK. 23% oppose further exploration in the area.

Or to put it another way, 56% do not support “continued exploration in the local area to understand the potential for natural gas from shale in the UK.”

Given that the two most important and worrying issues in this whole debate revolve around the adequacy of the regulatory environment and potential health impact, we are astounded that a survey that wants to be taken seriously does not mention either of those two issues anywhere.

That fact alone probably tells us as much as we need to know about it.

According to Mathew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, when the BritainThinks website started its slogan was if you’ve got an opinion, here’s where to stick it.

Well, quite.

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