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:
- To focus on levels of awareness of, support for, and opposition to, fracking in the UK
- To identify how people compare the risks and rewards
- 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:
- Political parties responding to public opinion when seeking votes
- Governments gauging levels of support/ opposition to their plans and waiting for the right time to act
- 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.