Tag Archives: fracking

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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Does Scotland have the capacity to produce its own energy policy?

UK energy policy is still reserved to the UK Government but, to all intents and purposes, major parts are being devolved to the Scottish Government. Politically, Scotland has a veto over the construction of new nuclear power stations, through executive devolution (via the Electricity Act 1989) and statements by several UK ministers since devolution. Legally, it is securing greater powers to oppose hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (‘fracking’), initially through the planning system and, from 2015, by securing the right to grant drilling licenses to companies. It is also pursuing a distinctive renewable energy policy, underpinned by its ability to help fund and approve the planning permission for major projects, and a permissive regime linked to EU targets and UK demand.

Yet, it does not have the constitutional or legal power to control the complete mix of energy production. This limitation helps generate the sense of a fragmented policy process in which the Scottish Government often contributes to the blocking of major sources of energy, while encouraging some and relying on the maintenance of others. This is an unsustainable position, since major sources of Scotland’s energy – its old nuclear power and coal burning plants – are coming to the end of their lives. We have reached the point where the Scottish Government, in cooperation with the Scottish Parliament and other actors, has to be a part of a long term strategy to secure its energy needs within a UK and EU framework.

Does the Scottish political system have the capacity to produce this strategy?

What would it take to make a legitimate decision built on sufficient and enduring support? The capacity:

  1. To generate and process evidence. Some will be fairly straightforward, technical, information – on, for example, levels of consumption/ production, import/ export, the risks and rewards to production, and the environmental effects regarding the use of each type of energy – and other information will be heavily contested. However, this distinction is not always predictable, particularly in highly salient issues where some groups do not trust information from others. A system requires the expertise to help generate and/ or analyse information, as well as the processes to combine it with other forms of knowledge (e.g. on the policy process), values and opinion, to produce a defendable decision.
  2. To inform the public, to generate an informed decision. Public knowledge of energy issues are often low, and it is rare to see public debates which consider energy consumption and production as a whole, rather than in relation to (for example) particular forms of energy produced in specific areas. The Scottish Government would need the capacity to encourage a sustained public discussion on the issues, perhaps not as intense as the debate on Scottish independence, but drawing on increased public participation (and certainly as high profile as the ‘national debate’ on compulsory education).
  3. To foster cooperation and a degree of consensus among social partners. The Scottish Government has developed a reputation for consultation to produce relatively high ‘ownership’ of policy problems and a useful degree of cooperation between social partners. Yet, this took place during a period of high public spending within policy areas, such as education and health, often marked by widespread agreement – often producing little need to generate consensus on ‘hard choices’. Energy policy would be a key test of its capacity to secure widespread agreement between business, energy, public sector, environmental and community groups.
  4. To produce ‘joined up government’, to ensure that energy aims are consistent with other policy aims, such as to produce sustainable growth and adherence to climate change targets. It has produced a National Performance Framework underpinned by a single purpose and a series of supporting aims (and measures of progress) but, as yet, it does not incorporate energy aims fully.
  5. Of the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the Scottish Government. The Scottish Parliament has the ability to scrutinise government policy, but it has limited resources to do so (and often-limited political incentives to devote considerable time to scrutiny), and its remit on partially-reserved areas would be difficult to define.
  6. To produce a degree of cross-party agreement, sufficient to maintain a long term strategy. Energy issues often generate intense competition among political parties, with the potential to undermine long term planning.
  7. To produce effective intergovernmental relations. If energy remains a formally reserved but an effectively increasingly devolved matter, the Scottish Government would need to maintain a regular relationship with the UK Government and UK public bodies, to secure a degree of agreement on Scotland’s contribution to UK policy.
  8. To produce a robust legal and regulatory framework, and sufficient resources to regulatory bodies.  Many of these policies require (Scotland, EU or UK-wide) regulations to maintain a dual focus on energy production and environmental (and health and) safety. Often more importantly, they require well-resourced public bodies to carry out regular inspections and approve local projects.

The example of hydraulic fracturing

Fracking policy is a useful example of an issue that has the potential to generate public interest in energy, but perhaps only to one aspect of a complicated decision. Current surveys suggest that public knowledge remains low (even when attention seems high) and that attention is focused on a small number of aspects (environmental consequences, economic potential) of specific projects. The issue has generated intense electoral competition to produce a moratorium or local veto on development, without giving the sense of what Scottish parties are willing to encourage alongside renewable energy. There is little evidence, yet, that the Scottish Government is in the position to broker a deal between energy businesses and environmental/ community groups – in an area in which it is increasingly important to demonstrate that the government has not already made up its mind on development (currently, this is a ‘governance’ problem faced more intensely by the UK Government). Scottish parliamentary scrutiny is limited, partly because there is still uncertainty about the specific issue and the Scottish Government’s role. Intergovernmental relations may often be limited to the forthcoming further devolution of powers, which give the Scottish Government another veto on energy production, without solving its need to work with the UK to produce an overall strategy. The consideration of a regulatory framework is in its infancy: the Royal Society guidelines are there, but we do not yet know how they would translate to specific regulations or if public bodies such as SEPA have the capacity to monitor adherence, before and after planning consent. Currently, this is one of many cases in which Scotland will benefit from further devolution and face considerable uncertainty about what to do with its new powers.

See also: I was partly motivated to write this up after reading Murdo Fraser’s Missing – an energy strategy for Scotland  and these replies:

Aileen McHarg also discusses energy (from p37) in ‘Further Devolution and Energy Policy’

My bullet point 1 was a glaring omission until:

(There is some more background to the relevance to fracking here: The fracking moratorium in Scotland: what is it for? To gather new evidence? If evidence based policy making interests you, see also  The Science of Policymaking)

You can also link this issue to the usual Scotland/ England banter here:

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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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What does the British public think about fracking, and how does it matter?

Public opinion on policy issues is a resource to be used in politics. Surveys don’t give us objective data on what the public want. Instead, they give us something to manipulate to help get what we want. It is easier to identify UK-wide support in principle than in specific areas. This suggests that, in a multi-level system of government, a UK pro-fracking government can draw on public support for its policies, but not rely on similar support in devolved and local areas.

There are at least three ways to measure public opinion on fracking:

  1. To focus on levels of awareness of, support for, and opposition to, fracking in the UK
  2. To identify how people compare the risks and rewards
  3. To identify levels of support in, or about, specific parts of the UK.

There are also at least three ways in which political actors might use the information:

  1. Political parties responding to public opinion when seeking votes
  2. Governments gauging levels of support/ opposition to their plans and waiting for the right time to act
  3. Groups seeking to manipulate attitudes, to focus on one aspect (such as the reward) at the expense of the other (such as the risk).

The UK’s simple survey

Its latest figures (October 2014) show that:

  • awareness of shale has risen since 2011. 15% (from 6%) now ‘know a lot about it’ and 76% have heard of it (42%)
  • 26% (27%) support its use, 27% (21%) oppose, and the rest express no preference.

Note: in this survey they trust you to say if you know what shale is and gauge all preferences, including those held by people who have not heard of shale.

The University of Nottingham’s more detailed poll

O’Hara et al (September 2014) find:

  • similar levels of public awareness. It has gone up from under 37.6% in March 2012  to 72.3% in September 2014 (it is higher among men 81.6% than women 63.6%)

Note: in this online survey, they test your knowledge of shale gas and exclude you if you get it wrong.  This means that the UK Government and Nottingham University populations are different. The former should pick up more on don’t knows and don’t cares. The latter should get a specific measure of relatively informed opinion.

  • higher support for fracking. About 50% say yes and about 30% no to the question ‘Should shale gas extraction in the UK be allowed?’.
  • In their report, O’Hara et al use the net support/ opposition (+ or -) approach to identify +21% support, alongside important trends – for example, it was +39.5% in July 2013.

They also provide more detail about risks and reward, with:

  • concerns about water contamination appearing to slightly overshadow expected benefits on energy costs
  • some concerns seem to be declining, but 49% still associate shale with earthquakes, and 45% with water contamination, This is a clear plurality if we compare with ‘don’t associate’ and ‘do not know’, but it is roughly equal if we put the latter two together to identify how many people don’t make the associations.
  • there are similar patterns of positive association with cheaper fuel and energy security.

Polls in specific areas

Table 22 of a Survation poll in January 2015 has 23.6% ‘I support fracking in Scotland’, 44.5% ‘I oppose fracking in Scotland’ and 31.9% ‘don’t know’. For men, it is 34/44.2/21.8, and women 13.7/44.8/41.5 (the difference might seem familiar to people used to tracking the indyref surveys). The overall figure might show that Scottish residents are less keen than the UK as a whole. Or, it shows the important difference between in principle or relatively abstract support across the UK and concrete support for specific drills in local areas.

The Scotland survey is good because the Daily Record tells you who did it and you can go look at the detailed figures. The BBC does not, so it is hard to tell if UK people or local residents favour fracking in the North-West of England. It’s also problematic to take much from surveys commissioned by one of the politically engaged groups on local attitudes, since question wording is very important.

So, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what people actually believe when we move from the abstract to a specific decision on something that will have real consequences.

How might political parties respond?

Right now, Scottish Labour and the SNP are competing with each other to make out that they are the ones opposed to fracking – even though they don’t simply rule it out completely like the Scottish Greens. Labour talks about a ‘freeze’ until the case has been made, it learns from developments in England, and a local referendum approves drilling in each area. The SNP talks about being cautious and ‘evidence based’, and focuses on its campaign to get more powers devolved (and licensing is coming to Scotland, which leaves energy taxation as the only main power not devolved). These strategies make sense because their supporters are slightly more likely, than the rest of the population, to oppose fracking (55.4% of those voting SNP in 2010 and 52.1% Labour are opposed). It makes less sense for the (albeit far less relevant to the Scottish bit of the UK general election) Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, whose supporters are more likely to support fracking.

The same mixture of incentives applies to the UK parties. The Nottingham approach finds that supporters of the Conservative (+62.3%), UKIP (+38.4%), and Liberal Democrat (+38.4%) parties are relatively in favour when asked ‘Should shale gas extraction in the UK be allowed?’, while Labour’s (-3.1%) are more against than in favour and the Green Party’s (-57%) are far more against.

How might governments respond?

The outcome of the UK survey is sometimes interpreted as low support for fracking but can also be seen as low opposition. We might think of the policymaking ideal in which the government gets most people to go with it, but many governments may simply seek a ‘permissive consensus’, in which people don’t demand a policy but will not punish a government too much for doing it (this is a feature of tobacco control, in which more people support, for example, a smoking ban after it has been introduced).

The Nottingham survey is a bit different because there is a mixture of support and concern, which will put pressure on them to address environmental concerns as they progress. Indeed, this is a key feature of the UK process: there is a majority coalition pursuing fracking development, but only tentatively, and based on the assumption of significant environmental and safety regulations.

The Scotland survey is different still. It perhaps reinforces a good instinct at the UK ‘centre’ to not try to impose its policy on UK regions. People might support UK fracking in the abstract, only to punish you if you push too hard in their area. However, the UK Government’s problem could be that this in principle UK support contrasts with local objection in all areas.

What can campaigners do?

There are clearly several ways to interpret the findings: most people in the UK support fracking; people are very concerned about the effects; and, most people may oppose in their area or specific parts of the UK. More importantly, these attitudes seem to change, over time and when viewed in reference to the risks and rewards.

The strategy for groups is to make sure that our attention is focused primarily on the risk or the reward, and to use the survey results selectively. The figure used most by the industry association (UK Onshore Oil and Gas) is that more say yes than no to the question ‘Should shale gas extraction in the UK be allowed?’.  The Scottish Greens focus on opposition in Scotland. Other anti-fracking campaigners will focus on the uncertainty, the environmental and safety risks, and the public concern about them.

Overall, we might say that there has been a ‘permissive consensus’ for further drilling/ exploration across the UK, but these attitudes are too subject to change, following unfolding events and the ability of groups to exploit them, to suggest that there is stable public support.

For more background on fracking policy, see Fracking policy in the UK: all out for shale? See also if you can spot the mistake in footnote 4 in the full paper.

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Filed under agenda setting, Fracking, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Fracking policy in the UK: all out for shale?

This post is based on a paper that I co-authored with Manuel Fischer and Karin Ingold: Cairney Fischer Ingold fracking in the UK for Zurich workshop 23 Jan 2015 (updated version: Weible et al book UK Chapter Cairney et al (including tables and appendix) 2016). See also a draft Fracking UK timeline

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. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security for our country’. Chancellor George Osborne also wrote a detailed letter to ministers asking them to make policy implementation a ‘personal priority.’

For the UK Government, fracking has three main benefits: ‘energy security, decarbonisation and economic growth’. It has shown clear support for test drilling to assess the economic feasibility of fracking. It has reinforced this support with a range of policies:

Yet, in two crucial ways, it has not gone all out for shale. First, it is part of a loose coalition of organisations which, ‘on average’, is tentatively pro-fracking. The coalition includes UK government bodies; government agencies monitoring adherence to regulations; the three main UK political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat (at least while in coalition government); the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the House of Commons, currently with a government majority; private energy companies (Cuadrilla, IGas Energy, Centrica, Total, Shell, National Grid) and industry groups (United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group, Oil & Gas UK, Chemical Industries Association; the NGO, No Hot Air; and, groups generating and sharing research: Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Geological Survey, CNG Services, Geological Society, Policy Exchange. The common element to this coalition is a wish to approve test drills, to get a better sense of the economic potential of shale gas (which only depends partly on production potential – note the currently low oil and gas prices), and support extensive regulation. Only some members of this coalition favour the ‘all out’ strategy. This coalition competes with an anti-fracking coalition which, while much smaller number, has a less equivocal political position. It includes the Green Party, NGOs such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Frack off, Friends of the Earth, and WWF UK, and, a research group, Tyndall Centre Manchester.

Second, it has not taken a centralist approach to energy security. Instead, it shares power across several levels of government. It has overall responsibility for energy policy, and retains ownership of mineral and gas resources, but has not centralised many aspects of fracking policy which are made by: devolved governments, responsible for developing national planning guidelines (Scotland will also soon receive powers on licensing); local authorities charged with granting planning permission for individual drilling sites; and public bodies responsible for ensuring environmental protection and health and safety. It also shares responsibility for environmental policy with the European Union. The UK has taken responsibility for strategic issues, related to energy security, the generation of evidence to address the economic viability and environmental uncertainty regarding fracking, the tax and incentives regime, and the UK-wide system granting energy companies the right to operate to extract minerals, but not the decision to approve drill sites in local areas. This is reflected in its rather convoluted ‘roadmap’ for private companies, which involves at least 15 steps and interaction with government and a large number of public bodies, culminating in the need to satisfy local authorities that they should drill in their area (public bodies, such as environment agencies also implement a complex mix of EU, UK and devolved regulations).

Currently, the result is that we don’t quite know what will happen, particularly since devolved and local governments are much more hesitant to approve actual development in their areas. The UK government may be ostensibly ‘all out for shale’, but this is not reflected in key decisions on the ground.

On this basis, we could expect one of three things. First, as events proceed and local areas begin to make decisions on individual sites, the anti-fracking coalition may swell, to reflect a growth in opposition or the decision of local authorities to reject planning applications. This is particularly likely if incidents such as tremors/ earthquakes should happen again close to test drilling sites. Second, the majority coalition may swell, but change further, to reflect an important degree of hesitant and prudent pro-fracking attitudes that are not sufficient to produce commercial fracking. Or, third, the majority coalition becomes more in favor of fracking, perhaps following the development of test drills and the gathering of evidence that suggests that regulations are sufficient and the commercial potential of shale gas is more certain. The latter outcome is by no means certain.

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Fracking in Scotland: maximum devolution versus a quadruple lock?

The case of fracking presents an interesting thought experiment about further devolution in Scotland: should you just push for the maximum devolution in each case or encourage the sharing of powers between many levels of government? Of course, it very much depends what you want to do, but I wouldn’t assume that further devolution means reduced drilling activity – largely because the party of government will change over time, even when the level of government responsibility does not. What seems like a good decision now (keep fracking away from the business-friendly UK Tories) may not in the future (and fracking, to me, seems like a very long term concern).

In general, the case for a ‘devo max’ attitude is quite clear: there is high support for further devolution and the more you devolve the more you satisfy a large part of the voting population. This can be exploited quite effectively by a Scottish Government minister arguing that the UK Government is depriving it of powers.

What is the case for not devolving all you can? Let’s use fracking as an example.

What if an explicit decision to share powers makes it less likely that one or two levels of government can control the process? In this case, you might need to go through four obstacles to produce a fracking decision:

  1. Satisfy the European Union that your activities would not contravene directives on water and air quality.
  2. Satisfy the UK Government that you are a fit company to receive a drilling license, and that the rules on drilling are appropriate.
  3. Work within Scottish Government guidance on how to plan land use to produce energy (shale gas, renewable, oil, nuclear) across the whole of Scotland.
  4. Satisfy local authority concerns about the effect of a drilling site in a particular area.

To me, that sounds a lot trickier for a private company, already facing a lot of opposition, than the concentration of power in a smaller territory. Or, at least, the thought process prompts us to ask: what are we devolving these powers for? Is it to satisfy a constitutional desire, or to satisfy a policy-based desire? The chat I see on twitter, aghast at the UK exercising power in this field, suggests that you can address both questions with further devolution – but I’d like to think about that a bit more before I agree.

 

 

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Filed under public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics