Category Archives: Fracking

Policy on hydraulic fracturing and shale gas/ oil

Did the Scottish Parliament just vote to ban fracking?

Not really.

Almost every headline reports that the Scottish Parliament voted to ban fracking on the 1st June 2016 (Guardian, BBC, Scotsman, National, STV, Holyrood).

The headlines are technically correct but super-misleading.

If watching from afar, you might deduce that Scottish Government policy is now (or about to be) in favour of a complete ban. Or, if you know more about the Scottish Parliament process, you might at least see it as a major defeat for the SNP under minority government even if the vote is not binding (indeed, the Guardian’s second headline states that the ‘Vote does not create binding policy but is significant defeat for SNP so soon into new parliamentary term’).

In both cases, you would be wrong because:

  • 33 of 123 available MSPs voted for the ban, 29 opposed, and 62 abstained.
  • The 33 were from the 3 smallest parties in the Scottish Parliament.
  • It is clear to everyone that the amendment-to-motion only passed because the SNP abstained.

The vote was embarrassing (particularly since it was on an amendment to a motion proposed by the SNP’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham) rather than binding. Its main effect is to produce this picture (source: BBC News) of the SNP squirming in the chamber.

BBC fracking 2016.JPG

In the past, a vote like this might have had more important effect. For example, the SNP agreed in 2007 (at the beginning of its previous spell of minority government) to reconsider the Edinburgh trams project after most of opposition parties voted in its favour. That motion was not binding, but the SNP took it far more seriously because the other parties could generate a vague sense of the ‘will of the Parliament’.

In the case of fracking, there is no such sense. Instead, the three smallest parties are restating their manifesto commitments, the now-more-important Conservatives are voting the other way, and the SNP is trying to ignore the whole thing.

This vote is unlikely to change the course of events too much: the SNP government still intends to delay things (while maintaining a moratorium) while it commissions and processes more research. The biggest factors are still likely to be public opinion, business versus environmental group pressure, and the level of disagreement within the SNP itself.

For more on fracking in Scotland, see:

Briefing: Unconventional Onshore Oil and Gas (or here)

Fracking posts

Holyrood election 2016 briefing

 

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Hydraulic fracturing policy in comparative perspective: how typical is the UK experience?

This paper – Cairney PSA 2016 UK fracking 15.3.16– collects insights from the comparative study of ‘fracking’ policy, including a forthcoming book using the ‘Advocacy Coalition Framework’ to compare policy and policymaking in the US, Canada and five European countries (Weible, Heikkila, Ingold and Fischer, 2016), the UK chapter, and offshoot article submissions comparing the UK with Switzerland. It is deliberately brief to reflect the likelihood that, in a 90-minute panel with 5 papers, we will need to keep our initial presentations short and sweet. I am also a member of the no-powerpoint-collective.

See also Three lessons from a comparison of fracking policy in the UK and Switzerland

Category: Fracking

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Three lessons from a comparison of fracking policy in the UK and Switzerland

What do we learn about UK hydraulic fracturing for shale energy (‘fracking’) policy and policymaking by comparing it to Switzerland?

  1. Current UK policy outcomes do not seem so different from a country in which anti-fracking actors are successful

The UK Government looks like it is as strongly pro-fracking as it can possibly be. Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared: ‘we’re going all out for shale‘ and Chancellor George Osborne oversaw many policies to encourage initial exploration and investment. Yet, the UK’s outcomes – no commercial fracking – are not so different from Switzerland, in which the most affected Cantons have introduced moratoriums or bans. These moratoriums are now in place in Scotland and Wales, and the UK Government has yet to overturn an English local authority decision to withhold planning permission for development.

  1. The UK does not live up to its ‘top down’, ‘majoritarian’ reputation

These outcomes often seem surprising because the UK government has a reputation built on a misleading image of ‘majoritarian’ (Westminster) democracies in which central governments hoard power and impose policies from the top down. So, for example, as soon as Cameron declared himself ‘all out for shale’, you’d be forgiven for thinking he could flick a switch and make it so.

This is what makes the Switzerland comparison so relevant: it has the opposite image, of a consensus democracy with a federalist structure and participative politics. Switzerland has an established culture of direct and regular participation via referendums. Direct-democratic instruments oblige public authorities to negotiate policy solutions with minority groups. Federalism offers ‘veto points’ and allows actors to defy a policy solution favoured by central government.

Yet, the difference in policymaking does not reflect the difference in these images (if anything, Swiss policy has been far more quick and decisive).

The main reason for the lack of difference is that these reputations only tell one part of the story. The most visible aspects of political systems may differ, but central governments routinely devolve policymaking and/ or negotiate political settlements in less visible subsystems. The contentious, high profile statements and subsequent disputes may represent the most visible part of policymaking, but the negotiation of settlements out of the public spotlight is far more common and routine.

  1. The UK policy process is more competitive, less consensual (but not in the way you might think)

So, we find differences in UK and Swiss policymaking, but they are far more subtle than you’d expect if you focused on high profile events and reputations. They happen in subsystems, in which coalitions of pro- and anti-fracking actors share information to influence the policy agenda.

Normally, you would expect actors to share certain information with their allies and withhold it from their competitors (such as political information on how best to ‘frame’ the issue and lobby governments), or to only share certain types of information (such as when coalitions compete to interpret technical or scientific information). However, this effect is far more pronounced in the UK, in which there is more competition and less trust. So, the ‘majoritarian’ UK seems to produce a more competitive policy process even though it shares with Switzerland a tendency to make policy in subsystems, often out of the public spotlight.

You can read more in this draft paper, which also describes how we use the same theory (Advocacy Coalition Framework) and method (survey data and documentary analysis) to compare policy and policymaking systematically in two ‘most different’ countries:

Cairney Fischer Ingold Fracking UK Switzerland 18.01.16

 

 

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Women don’t understand facts (and fracking)

A recent poll suggests that women are far less likely to support commercial fracking than men. For a while, the same divide was detected in relation to Scottish independence. The common factor is that you can learn a lot from people’s attitudes to gender by how they try to explain these divides.

A common starting point is that women are less likely to take risks (quick and cheap Google examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Then lots of people make fools of themselves by adding to the explanation: women prefer security/ a ‘safety blanket’ because their role is to nurture, earth mothers are closer to the environment, men are buccaneers, men are more ‘rational’ when they consider risk, and so on.

Or, perhaps they are misreported. I don’t know.

For example, it is now being reported in the Times that Professor Averil MacDonald (‘the new champion of the shale gas industry’) says: ‘Vast numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they “don’t understand” and follow their gut instinct rather than the facts’ (the same interpretation can be found in the Guardian, Daily Mail, and Independent).

The message that I think MacDonald was presenting is this: people are less likely to support fracking if they didn’t study particular sciences at school; and, women are less likely to have studied those sciences at school. Maybe, at its core, is a good point about challenging the barriers to women studying, and choosing a career in, certain science subjects (i.e. these findings might give us a window of opportunity to discuss such barriers).

Turned into a newspaper headline it becomes this: “Fracking? Women ‘don’t understand the science’”.

Beyond this point, there are four other things worthy of discussion:

  1. You can’t separate your values from your empirical studies and scientific explanations

Some people like to present themselves as objective truth-seeking scientists, but they are kidding themselves or trying to kid other people. Scientific study is infused with our values, from what is worthy of our study, to how to study it, and what counts as good research, evidence, and explanation. Normally, you just see the end without considering all the assumptions that people make at the beginning. Or, people engage in inductive science, then struggle with post-hoc explanation (‘umm, like, women are different, eh?’).

  1. You can’t separate politics from explanation

Part of the problem with gender-based conclusions is that people jump to explanations based on the too-broad category ‘women’ (or ‘men’) without considering the political implications of treating one gender as one group of people. Maybe it gets you somewhere initially, as a way of efficiently identifying correlations, but it gets you nowhere if you then try and come up with one overarching explanation for what is going on. It’s quite bad science and it’s very bad politics, contributing to unsubstantiated stereotypes. The overall correlation also distracts us from more detailed explanations based on gender and a wide range of other factors, which contributes to a further political problem: it reinforces the argument that somehow the difference between a positive or negative political choice boils down to the attitudes of women.

  1. People go beyond their expertise

It is common for people to develop an undeserved general reputation for expertise, built on specific expertise in one discipline or field. It’s always worth being particularly skeptical when people with a background in natural science pronounce on social behaviour, or indeed when political scientists try to explain psychology or how gravity works. Just as you wouldn’t ask me to give a lecture on the combustion engine, don’t rely primarily on STEM professors to explain the outcomes of surveys.

  1. All people combine ‘rational’ and gut-level shortcuts

If you read something like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you won’t find him saying that only women make gut, intuitive, or emotional decisions. We’re all at it. In fact, in my forthcoming Palgrave ‘Pivot’ book The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking* I use that basic insight to explain policymaking: Policymakers cannot consider all evidence relevant to policy problems. They use two shortcuts: ‘rational’ ways to establish the best evidence, and ‘irrational’ decision-making, drawing on emotions and beliefs to act quickly.

*Yes, I wrote this post largely to advertise my next publication.

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You shouldn’t love or hate fracking unconditionally

I was at a workshop in which we compared hydraulic fracturing/ fracking policy in many countries: the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. One crucial point that arose from the focus on Germany/ UK on the one hand, and France/ Sweden on the other is that the debate has become relatively specific in some countries. In France and Sweden, the debate is quite broad: Sweden focuses on a broad opposition to fossil fuels and relatively low reliance on gas; in France, 90% of electricity comes from nuclear, and the debate is wider, focusing on hydrocarbons. In the UK and Germany (at least in our impression) we talk specifically about fracking as a technology – the ‘unconventional drilling’ side and focus very much on the uncertainty about the seismic activity and pollution caused during the process. Maybe we occasionally talk about fossil fuels in general but, as far as I can tell, not very often and not very well. The focus on the technology side of shale gas has often pushed the fossil fuel and energy mix question off the agenda.

This country-specific outcome is contributing to a profound global problem. In particular, look at the unintended consequences:

  • The rush for shale gas/ oil in the US – they produced huge energy reserves and helped push the price down; the price of coal has become too high and the US now exports a huge amount to Europe.
  • The uncertainty about the energy mix in the UK in Germany. Germany is phasing out nuclear and, for the foreseeable future, will burn a huge amount of coal until its transition to greater renewable energy. The UK has not made an effectively strong commitment to nuclear and also relies a huge amount on coal.

Look at these two things in tandem: the US fracks, uses the oil and gas at home, then ships over coal to burn in Europe. I like to think that this is not a decision that would have been made ‘rationally’ if they cooperated or each individual country consider their own energy mixes in a more holistic way.

The problem is that, at least in the UK, this kind of discussion gets lost in the excitement of fracking (and, in many cases, the usual party politics nonsense). Many (if not all) of us don’t want fracking in our back yard, but we might be happy enough with fracking in someone else’s. Perhaps some of us have vague hopes that, if we ban fracking, we will suddenly get all of our electricity from renewable energy (and perhaps burn less gas for heat in our homes). Some of us don’t care. Some of us want to use far less energy. Some of us are frustrated that we are making hugely contradictory choices (at least in the short term) by banning fracking partly on the grounds that you should keep fossil fuels in the ground while accepting that we are burning other fossil fuels from under someone else’s ground.

In other words, we do the debate a disservice if we love or hate fracking unconditionally. We need to think about the assumptions we make when we reject some fuels, and consider in more depth what else we can do. If not shale gas or nuclear power, are we happy to keep burning coal and importing gas? This is not my argument for shale gas. It is an argument for a better, more coordinated, national discussion on the risks and rewards of all parts of the energy mix.

See also:

uk import dependency

This UK Government document give you a sense of the proportion of energy the UK imports. The UK is now a net importer of all fuels (see p3). This UK Government document suggests that we imported 49 million tonnes of coal in 2013, and that our natural gas consumption (850 TWh in 2013) – for homes, industry and electricity – comes as much from imports as domestic production.

gas imports

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The fracking moratorium in Scotland: what is it for? To gather new evidence?

The Scottish Government has announced a ‘moratorium’ on fracking to allow it to carry out ‘further research and a public consultation’. It plans to:

‘Undertake a full public consultation on unconventional oil and gas extraction

Commission a full public health impact assessment

Conduct further work into strengthen[ing] planning guidance

Look at further tightening of environmental regulation’

This is not a Green-style ‘keep it in the ground’ approach (as today’s questioning made clear). Rather, it is an expression of further caution, reflecting some public concerns about the environmental consequences, a small amount of survey evidence which suggests that fracking would be unpopular (table 22), and the ramped-up electoral competition, in which it is competing with Scottish Labour to be the most anti-fracking-sounding-party amongst the parties that are tentatively pro-fracking (expect Energy Minister Fergus Ewing’s announcement to be followed quickly by a Scottish Labour announcement: ‘it’s about time you did what we have been recommending for ages’).

The Scottish Government has also reiterated that its approach is ‘considered and evidence-based’ – but what evidence can it reasonably expect to gather? There are perhaps four main relevant kinds:

  • Scientific. The Scottish Government already has a wealth of information and expert opinion from, for example, The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering and the Scottish Government’s Independent Expert Scientific Panel, both of which will not make the decision for ministers (also note that one of the experts has been highly critical of the delay). It also plans a ‘public health impact assessment’ to generate more opinion on the likely risks. What it can’t gather is more information on the likely reward, since the commercial potential of fracking will only be known when companies perform test drills.
  • Other countries. It could examine, in more depth, the effect of fracking on other countries. However, meaningful learning takes years, if not decades, to see how policy progresses in line with events, and to consider how relevant (if at all) the lessons are to Scotland (which will not share the same geography as other countries).
  • Anti-fracking groups. The Scottish Government will want to know more about what it is up against – the number of people willing to actively oppose test drills, and the proportion that may be satisfied with further environmental safeguards.
  • The public. We really don’t know what people want. One survey in Scotland highlights anti-fracking feeling, while others identify minority opposition across the UK. The surveys also highlight a lack of knowledge/ awareness of fracking and shale gas, and that people tend to associate fracking with the risks and rewards.

In other words, beyond the need to have a canny electoral position, this moratorium may exist largely to focus on ‘governance’ issues. The Scottish Government is proud of its reputation as a government that makes policy through consultation, to gather evidence, seek consensus when it is there, and (when possible or appropriate) ‘co-produce’ policy with a wide range of people and organisations. However, in cases such as fracking, it also exists to make hard decisions in the absence of consensus – some groups will win and others will lose.

The evidence gathering process should therefore be about generating new data on:

  • public opinion (detailed enough to be meaningful),
  • the strength of opinion of pro- and anti- groups (to get a better sense of the potential for compromise in some areas), and
  • ‘best practice’, on how to conduct meaningful public exercises to inform the public about the risks and rewards, and to demonstrate ‘due process’, before any decision is made in each local area.

See also: brief debate on Sunday Politics Scotland (30 minutes) http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b050b2kg/sunday-politics-scotland-01022015 , in which Professor Paul Younger argues that the Scottish Government’s new scientific concerns are ‘made up’, ‘feigned’ and ‘pretendy’ – and that he has become a ‘political football’. It is followed by a 4-party discussionthat is a wee bit confusing.

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Do Scottish political parties want to ban fracking in Scotland? Does the Scottish public?

STOP_sign

Update 28.1.15 The Scottish Government announced a ‘moratorium’ on fracking in Scotland, to give it time to gather more evidence, partly through a public consultation.

[27.1.15] MPs voted yesterday not to have a moratorium on fracking in the UK. Instead, via the Infrastructure Bill, the UK Government continued its plans to reduce some planning obstacles while accepting Labour amendments on further environmental regulations. Labour presented this move as a ‘u turn’ when, in fact, both parties appear to be pro-fracking under the right circumstances, as opposed to the Greens, who oppose it unequivocally.

The Scottish dimension regarded a Labour amendment to accelerate the Smith Commission proposal, accepted by the UK Government, to devolve a further aspect of fracking (the licensing of firms to drill). The UK Government rejected this move, but agreed to exempt Scotland from the new planning changes in the Bill.

Still, in the most important sense, the Scottish Government controls the fate of fracking policy. It shares responsibility – with the EU, UK, public bodies, and local authorities – for the introduction of test drilling and commercial fracking, but can stop development at any time through its planning powers. The question is: who wants it to do so? The answer is: we don’t yet know.

scotgreens fracking tweet 27.1.15

My impression is that the two main Scottish parties do not want to tie themselves to a pledge to ban fracking forevermore. Right now, they want to look like they want to ban fracking but keep their options open while they obfuscate (to buy time to see what happens in England). For example, the SNP MPs voted yesterday for a moratorium in the UK, but its MSPs have not done likewise in the Scottish Parliament. [Update 28.1.15 See Energy Minister Fergus Ewing’s announcement of a moratorium! The stated aim is to allow him to gather more evidence and conduct a public consultation]. It focuses on a cautious wait and see what the evidence tells us approach in Scotland, combined with the usual focus on the constitution: complaining that the Conservative-led Government is imposing fracking changes in Scotland. Labour MPs proposed (successfully) amendments to the Infrastructure Bill to introduce further environmental regulations but abstained on the moratorium. It has called on the SNP to put a stop to fracking in Scotland, but its plans instead involve calling for a ‘freeze’ on fracking until the case is made (I don’t know how a freeze differs from a moratorium), and proposing a ‘triple lock’ which keeps the option open. The approach of both parties is as clear as mud compared to the Greens on the one hand (keep it in the ground) and the UK Conservative leadership (see also Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser) on the other (‘all out for shale’) (one exception is the relatively clear statement by Sheila Gilmore MP). Still, from what they say, we can conclude that the SNP and Scottish Labour support commercial fracking if their conditions are met. This is conditional support, not outright opposition, and the main differences between them are in presentation rather than substance.

Part of the problem for these parties is that there is so much uncertainty, not only about the issue itself (‘the evidence’ will never tell you what to do, and scientists won’t make the decision for you), but about what the public wants. Only one Scottish-specific poll is available. Table 22 of a Survation poll in January 2015 has 23.6% responding ‘I support fracking in Scotland’, 44.5% ‘I oppose fracking in Scotland’ and 31.9% ‘don’t know’ (there is more support among men and more ‘don’t knows’ among women). Further, 55.4% of those voting SNP in 2010 and 52.1% Labour are opposed (supporters of the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are more in favour). This contrasts with a separate, more regular, UK survey, showing that 21% more people say yes than no when asked, ‘Should shale gas extraction in the UK be allowed?’ (although they find similar party political differences).

The figures might show that Scottish residents are less keen than the UK as a whole, and that an open-ended cautious approach is the best strategy for both main parties. Or, it shows the important difference between in principle support across the UK and concrete support for specific drills in local areas. The same pattern might be found in England, or the England experience might show that governments can persuade and give enough incentives to secure sufficient local consent. We don’t yet know, because policy is progressing slowly (at least compared to places like the US), local opinion data is scarce, and about 30% of the public still doesn’t know what fracking is. Think of the contrast between the huge amount of data we had on attitudes to a simple question on independence – which still didn’t settle the matter. With fracking, many of the political parties look hesitant because they don’t yet know how to deal with uncertainty.

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