Understanding the spatial and temporal dynamics of public attitudes and community responses to shale gas: an integrated approach

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


This research project will analyse how public attitudes and community responses to shale gas unfold in space and time. Given that public protests about hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') have taken place in several countries including the UK, understanding public attitudes and community responses to shale gas development is a key social science research area, with relevance for UK policy and for developers' 'social license to operate'.

To date, cross-sectional research on public attitudes to shale gas has predominated, with little detail on how attitudes might vary across geographical areas or evolve over time. Moreover, little in-depth research has charted the lived experience of UK communities in places of shale gas development or the operator engagement that has taken place there.

To address these gaps, this project will implement a mixed-method approach combining spatial, qualitative and quantitative tools. We take a multi-scalar approach with a particular interest in the evolution of public attitudes at the societal level, and the relations between stakeholder and community engagement around particular shale gas development projects at the local level. Informed by frameworks derived from research on other controversial energy technologies, we aim to address the following questions:

RQ1. How do public attitudes to shale gas evolve over space and time in response to unfolding events and changing discourse?
RQ2. What is the lived experience of communities affected by shale gas site preparation, exploration and extraction?
RQ3. What rationales and practices are employed by shale gas stakeholders, including operators, to engage with communities and how is this engagement perceived and responded to?

The proposed research will develop new understandings of public attitudes and community responses to shale gas informed by theory from human geography and social psychology. Drawing on core concepts of geographical differentiation, spatial proximity and place attachment, we will develop and apply a novel methodological basis for analyzing socio-economic aspects of shale gas.

The work programme is divided into four interdependent tasks. WP1 will construct a platform to integrate data at national and local scales, with environmental (both topographical and subsurface), political and socio-economic characteristics overlaid with data on the evolution of public attitudes (WP2) and lived experience and stakeholder engagement (WP3). A final work package will synthesise findings from across these strands (WP4).

The project will have multiple impacts, including:

Capacity building - fostering the development of less experienced investigators and post-doctoral researchers through the targeted co-management of research activities and co-production of written outputs;

Public and stakeholder engagement - with national and local stakeholders in each case study area, from public, private and NGO sectors;

Influence on policy and practice - working with the project's international Advisory Board to widely share findings expected to attract local, national and international interest;

Wider academic impacts - through a series of high profile scientific publications, new datasets, conference and seminar presentations.

Planned Impact

The proposed project will adopt an engaged research approach and will benefit multiple stakeholders at national and local scales.

The project will benefit shale gas communities by providing opportunities for residents and action groups in three case study locations to give voice to their sense of place and lived experiences, attitudes and understandings of shale gas. This will be achieved through research activities (walking interviews, focus groups) and participation in local and national engagement events that aim to provide spaces for bringing stakeholders together to enable public debate on shale gas. The project will directly impact upon involved citizens and partners engaged through the project, through skills development, and ensure research outcomes and outputs to which they have contributed are visible, relevant and useful. By sharing research outputs (e.g. maps of license areas from WP1; 'attitude maps' from WP2; digitized versions of participatory mapping and elicited photos from WP3) that capture and reveal public attitudes and community responses to shale gas in accessible formats, we will inform and be informed by our case study communities and ensure maximum impact of the project within, across and beyond our case study locations.

The project will benefit policy makers at national levels (e.g. BEIS (OUOGAS) as main target, Defra, DCLG, Treasury etc.) but also local government in shale gas development areas, the shale gas industry (e.g. UKOOG, specific operators) and other science and regulatory stakeholders with an interest in shale gas development (e.g. British Geological Survey, Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency). The project will benefit environmental civil society organisations with an interest in energy, climate change and landscape conservation (e.g. CPRE, FOE, WWF, Greenpeace, 10:10 Climate Action, Green Alliance as well as shale gas action groups, e.g. Frack-Off). Stakeholders will be invited to join the project advisory board and will benefit from research providing in-depth, robust knowledge about public attitudes and community responses at a level of granularity and robustness unavailable in the UK to date.

For national policy makers, survey findings will overcome a serious methodological limitation of DECC/BEIS Public Attitude Tracker Surveys - the use of repeated cross-sectional research designs that cannot capture evolution in individuals' opinions over time. Our longitudinal research across three survey waves, coupled with analysis of social media, will therefore provide unprecedented information about public attitude change over time that will be of strong interest to national policy makers.

Stakeholders from public, private and NGO sectors will benefit from research findings that provide feedback about how engagement activities with publics at societal and local community scales is interpreted and evaluated by different societal groups, and will provide important information about levels of public trust in these stakeholders and how this evolves over time. Research on stakeholder (including operator) engagement with communities in case study locations will lead to a deeper understanding of effective engagement with shale gas and recommendations for practice (e.g. timing, frequency and type of engagement activities undertaken).

The project will benefit society as a whole through the provision of accessible outputs (e.g. an atlas of maps) that are shared using social media, a dedicated web presence and science events (e.g. ESRC Festival of Social Science, British Festival of Science). These will aim to inform and enable public debate on shale gas development, by providing robust research findings on societal-level public attitudes and understandings and local level community responses; how these evolve over time and underlying factors explaining these.


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Description We have developed insights about how public attitudes to shale gas across the UK change over time, drawing on findings from two waves of national surveys conducted in April 2019 and July 2020. We will go on to compare these attitudes over time and extend the findings with one further wave of the survey conducted in April 2021. These show a steady decline in levels of support, and a steady increase in the numbers of objections. We have also conducted local case study research to investigate the experiences of those directly impacted by drilling proposals. This has shown a range of concerns, including local and non-local negative impacts, as well as concerns about fairness and justice. One of our contributions has been to understand these concerns about fairness using the lens of 'intersectionality', which means paying careful attention to how local negative impacts are distributed across a range of other categories, including age, gender, socio-economic status and health.

Additional insights:

From analysis of public opinion about the moratorium in 2019 on shale gas exploration in England:

• Public responses to policy change involve awareness, interpretations and opinions.
• High public awareness and support exists towards the 2019 shale gas moratorium.
• Sceptical interpretations arose from the timing, source and extent of policy change.
• Social media analysis enables insight into public responses over hours and days.
• Mixed methods enables insights into diverse publics and drivers of ideology, scale and demographics.

From analysis of perceived fairness in a local fracking case study context, drawing on qualitative data collected from local residents:

We find evidence of both well-established and newly emerging distributive, procedural and recognition justice issues, including concerns about the disparate distribution of risks for the most intersectionally- vulnerable residents, a lack of timely access to data and information, and a lack of understanding and recognition of local residents and their placebased concerns.
Exploitation Route It has strong relevance for industry and policy concerned with shale gas and for academics interested in public attitudes to energy resources.

It has strong relevance for net zero policy making and industrial sectors concerned with 'underground' energy - notably CCUS, geothermal, thermal storage etc.
Sectors Energy,Environment

URL http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/assist/news/
Description Findings have been shared with policy and industry stakeholders. They have provided additional insights to both groups about the nature of UK public attitudes to shale gas. Arising from collaboration with the wider NERC funded UKUH research programme, we plan to conducted further engagement with industry and policy makers in June 2022.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description Developing Deep Science Laboratories from the Shale Gas Legacy
Amount £86,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2021 
End 06/2022
Description Shake, quake or fake? Comparing BGS expected intensity modelling, felt reports, Tweets, and public perceptions
Amount £87,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2021 
End 06/2022
Description Underground energy on-the-ground: Risk perception, community engagement and lessons learned for geothermal energy in a post-shale energy landscape
Amount £85,629 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2021 
End 05/2022
Title Local case ethnographic data 
Description Materials from ethnographic research collected in one of our case study areas, comprising field notes and interview transcripts. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We are currently analysing the data and preparing publications arising from it. 
Title Moratorium survey data 
Description Data collected from a national survey conducted in December 2019 on the moratorium on shale gas in England with a representative sample of UK adults (n=1674). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We are currently analysing the data for publication. 
Title Wave 1 national survey 
Description Dataset derived from national questionnaire survey conducted in April 2019 with a total sample of 2777 adults, representative of the UK population. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact We are still analysing the dataset and preparing publications from it. 
Description Industry workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The event had two parts. In the first part, a meeting took place between UK shale gas industry representatives and social science academics. Industry representatives included UKOOG, INEOS, Cuadrilla, iGas and Third Energy. We discussed issues around community engagement, public attitudes and understandings, policy and research. In the second part, a larger meeting took place on Energy Security and Shale Gas, with presentations by academics and industry professionals. The Shale Gas Commissioner attended the event and participated in the discussions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Participation in a stakeholder and academic conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The purpose of the event was to bring stakeholders and academics together to discuss the role of gas in the UK economy. I gave a presentation on research findings from the project and took part in discussions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020