Thursday, 23 February 2012

More on the U of T shale gas study: public and media perceptions

Given how long I'd rambled on, I decided to split my analysis of the University of Texas hydraulic fracturing study into two posts. Another issue that I found particularly relevant was the UoT analysis of media output and public perception of shale gas. The findings were overwhelmingly negative - for the majority of the public shale gas is connected mainly with water contamination issues. I'm not sure which way round these things work (does the media inform public debate or merely follow it?) but it's not a coincidence that media reporting of the shale gas issue is generally strongly negative. The UoT study found that between 63-70% of media reports were negative about shale gas, 19% to 30% were neutral and balanced, and 3-18% were positive. Perhaps equally non-coincidental, only 15-33% of these reports contained any reference to scientific research and reports on fracking. Which is very worrying. I clearly need to be getting a lot more vocal and putting myself out there. It was the lack of any scientific basis to most of the shale gas debate in this country that got me angry enough to get up and write this whole blog (and believe me, you have to get me pretty angry to get me off the sofa and onto the laptop when I could be watching Spurs draw 0-0 with Stevenage).

An example of fairly unabashed negative reporting of shale gas comes from the Guardian. For me, this report says that there's nothing inherently problematic about hydraulic fracturing, so long as companies stick to the rules and don't do anything stupid - i.e. that, just like in conventional oil and gas reservoirs around the world, they ensure their casings are intact and that they don't dump anything at the surface - then shale gas is unlikely to cause environmental problems. You'd have thought a report like that would be good news all round - so long as gas companies play it straight and don't cut corners, we can have the shale gas without polluting the environment. However, I can't help feel like this Guardian article manages to make things look extremely negative. My feeling is that the Erin Brockovich-style story the little guys from the country versus the monolithic industrial empires, is the kind of story that the media likes to write. It's a very powerful and pervasive cultural meme.

The 'memetic' nature of the debate has been revealed recently in a Texas court case. A couple living attempted to sue a gas company for contaminating their water supply with methane. As part of their case, they posted videos on YouTube of their garden hose spouting flame as a result of gas-contamination of the water supply. However, it has since transpired that their hose was in fact connected to the gas, not the water supply, making their case a complete fraud. The couple are now being counter-sued by the operators for defamation. What is interesting is that the flaming tap phenomenon has become such a cultural meme associated with shale gas that the public is now ready to believe such things with little evaluation of the evidence. Mainly because it appears that 85% of media reports on shale gas do not contain any scientific evidence.

I'll leave with what might be considered to be a snide little remark (sometimes I just can't help myself): in my experience so far, the main opponents to shale gas and fracturing are wealthy Tory councillors, and millionaire Hollywood actors. Hardly surprising: if you're actually a 'little guy' from a rural backwater (rather than a relatively well-off journalist from a large city), then a natural resource capable of turning around your struggling local economy is not something to be sniffed at or dismissed casually.