Geo-logics and Geo-politics: The Collective Governance of European Shale Gas Development

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Geography - SoGE


This project explores recent shifts in the knowledge and politics of resource development that have been implied by the prospective exploitation of shale gas resources in Europe. The possibility of implementing a US-developed industry in a substantially different geo-economic context represents currently one of the most heated scientific and political controversies in the EU, as debates over the feasibility and desirability of shale gas development have become highly polarised between and within member states. The difficulties of establishing a more balanced dialogue and decision-making are compounded by the lack of reliable scientific knowledge of potential resources, understanding of environmental impacts and a coordinated transnational policy. In the situation of prevailing scientific uncertainty and growing public opposition, it has become acutely clear that the industry's prospects cannot solely be decided by geoscientific expertise or industry-government negotiations. This has resulted in a particular crisis of governance, where it is no longer clear whose knowledge counts and who gets to decide over the industry's future, especially since the EU has currently no mandate to regulate the industry in its member states.

This project analyses the changing forms and networks of expert knowledge and political authority that inform shale gas controversies, focusing particularly on conflicting assessments of recoverable resources and technological readiness. It examines whether these changes can be explained by diverse and conflicting social definitions of the geological resource, or what is conceptualised here as contending 'geo-logics', drawing upon relational accounts of natural resources in geography and cognate disciplines. Further, the project explores the potential of geoscientific controversies to give rise to non-elite forms of knowledge production and political agency, or what recent social science literature has called 'geo-politics'. Drawing on a series of in-depth interviews, ethnographic research and social network analysis, the project maps out the epistemic communities, modes of governance and resource definitions arising from shale gas controversies, with an empirical focus on EU-level policymaking and the two leading developer countries, the UK and Poland. In addition, the project puts the research findings into action by exploring what opportunities exist for experimenting with alternative forums of collective resource governance. This is achieved through a series of knowledge exchange and networking activities that bring leading social scientists specialising in unconventional energy resources together with key experts from EU and national authorities, industry, and civil society organisations.

By documenting and conceptualising the 'geo-logics' and 'geo-politics' arising from European shale gas development, the project will establish a new research agenda for socio-political studies of natural resources at the intersection of resource geography and anthropology, critical geopolitics, and Science and Technology Studies. This research highlights the significance of contending resource definitions for understanding not only the challenges of unconventional energy development, but the dynamics of contemporary resource controversies and governance more generally.

Planned Impact

There are a wide range of beneficiaries of this research, including direct beneficiaries (stakeholders) and indirect potential beneficiaries. The project's stakeholders include organisations and individuals who will participate in interviews and knowledge exchange activities:

(1) EU policymakers: This research will raise their awareness about the need to move beyond technocratic approaches to policymaking and improve existing dynamics of expert knowledge production, particularly given that the European Commission is in the process of developing an EU-wide policy framework and public consultation guidelines on shale gas development. In particular, the planned stakeholder workshop and participatory research will create synergies between social science research and policy initiatives, and thereby raise the capacity of policymakers to utilise social science methods in the design of more inclusive forums of knowledge production and public engagement. The project therefore helps to improve the effectiveness, transparency and public acceptability of forthcoming EU regulations and policy recommendations on shale gas.

(2) Government officials in the UK and Poland: The project further facilitates more effective and transparent policymaking and regulation in the UK and Poland through interviews, dissemination of policy briefs and participation in relevant events. The aim here is to ensure harmony with EU-level policy initiatives, while simultaneously addressing the state-specific challenges arising from national law and socio-political issues, particularly the need to compromise between energy security and environmental policy objectives.

(3) NGO coalitions: The project includes another stakeholder workshop, interviews and communication with NGO coalitions headquartered in Brussels, as well as interviews with leading 'anti-fracking' movements in the UK and Poland. Through a joint review of existing public engagement practices, the project will improve the visibility and receptibility of civil society voices in the public debate. However, the project simultaneously aims to raise awareness about the need to move beyond mere confrontation and instead find solutions for open dialogue and more participatory forums of knowledge- and policymaking.

(4) Industry: Through interviews and the third stakeholder workshop, the project raises the awareness of shale gas companies to account for the governance challenges arising from their activities, particularly about the need to find more inclusive ways of engaging with civil society that exceed the procedures of public consultation. In this way, the project is expected to have positive effects on corporate citizenship, social responsibility and accountability.

Indirect potential beneficiaries will benefit from the project's outcomes, including policy briefs and articles, as well as from any future initiatives that follow from collaborative research with other social science researchers:

(1) Policymakers in other EU member states that currently consider or have already undertaken shale gas exploration.
(2) Local governments in the UK and Poland.
(3) Local governments and non-government organisation involved in the regulation and policy design in other EU member states.
(4) Citizens and grassroots movements who are concerned about shale gas development in their neighbourhoods.

With emphasis on collective resource governance and constructive dialogue, the project findings serve to alleviate the antagonistic relationship between industry protagonists and opponents in the longer term. This will contribute to more effective transnational regulation and reduction of the economic costs associated with failed exploration programmes, including in the UK. In this way, the project addresses the ESRC priorities of 'Economic Performance and Sustainable Growth' and 'Vibrant and Fair Society', while contributing to the RCUK cross-council theme 'Energy'.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/N016351/1 01/10/2016 31/03/2018 £149,196
ES/N016351/2 Transfer ES/N016351/1 01/07/2018 31/12/2019 £92,059
Description European Science and Technology Network on Unconventional Hydrocarbon Extraction
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Cambridge Political Geology group 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Geography
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I'm working as part of an interdisciplinary group developing new ideas around the concept of "political geology". This group is led by Dr Amy Donovan, University of Cambridge, Geography department, but involves academics from several UK institutions.
Collaborator Contribution Participate in their workshops in Cambridge and part of a book project to be published with Palgrave MacMillan.
Impact Book proposal to Palgrave MacMillan
Start Year 2017
Description Durham 
Organisation Durham University
Department Department of Music
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Invited speaker at the workshop on 'Anticipating Abundance: Economizing the Arctic' in May 2017, 10-11th, as part of the IceLaw project, Various meetings in the University of Durham and plans for further collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution Profs Phil Steinberg and Gavin Bridge in the geography department have organised a workshop for a small group of scholars working on resource materialities, energy futures, and anticipatory economies (part of the IceLaw project).
Impact Workshop paper in progress.
Start Year 2017
Description Energy Anthropology Network 
Organisation Energy Anthropology Network
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution I am one of 36 founding members of the Energy Anthropology Network of EASA (European Association of Social Anthropologists) and member of the EAN email list
Collaborator Contribution The EAN network was initiated by Aleksandra Lis, Nathalie Ortar, Tristan Loloum and Simone Abram to bring together European social scientists working on energy issues. The organisers have created a joint email list for all participants to share information, expertise and publications. The Network was launched with a roundtable at the 'Energy Impacts' conference in Bergen, 28th February 2017.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2017
Description Resource Temporalities 
Organisation London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaboration on co-organising 2 conference panels on 'Resource Temporalities' at the RGS-IBG 2017 international conference with Dr Gisa Weszkalnys and writing a joint paper on the basis of the Call for Papers document.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Gisa Weskalnys and I have collaborated on preparing the CfP document and recruited participants from across Geography and Anthropology networks.
Impact 'Resource Temporalities: Anticipations, Retentions and Afterlives'. Call for Papers and working paper for a joint article in preparation. Proposal for 2 conference sessions (10 papers) submitted to the RGS-IBG 2017 conference organisation team.
Start Year 2017