The latest University of Nottingham survey of public attitudes to shale gas extraction in the UK has found that for the first time a majority of people in the UK are opposed to fracking. Since the survey began in March 2012, fracking had always had a positive approval rating, although this had been falling steadily following the anti-fracking protests at Balcombe in 2013. Prior to the protests, fracking had an approval rating of +39.5 percent. By September 2014 this had fallen to +21 percent; and a year later it had dropped to +10.4 percent. Nevertheless, government and energy companies could still take comfort from the fact that, on balance, people continued to support fracking.
The September 2016 survey is the first to find that fracking has a negative rating of -3.8 percent; with concerns about groundwater pollution and seismic activity featuring highest as reasons for public dissatisfaction. The government also appears to have lost the argument that claims that shale gas is a “clean” energy source.
Although anti-fracking campaigners have been highly effective at challenging the government and energy companies on the environmental threats from fracking, they have been much less effective at challenging the economic assumptions behind the industry. In September 2016, a +17 percent majority of people saw shale gas as a cheap energy resource, while +25.7 percent believe the shale gas industry will have benefits for the UK economy. The concern here is that support for fracking on economic grounds may harden as energy prices increase and as the impact of a falling exchange rate causes more expensive imported gas to hit domestic energy bills.
Thus far, the UK anti-fracking campaign has failed to find an equivalent to former City of London analyst and US campaigner Deborah Rogers, whose warnings about the financialisation of the US shale drilling industry are now being seen in the current wave of bankruptcies.
It is worth noting that just prior to leaving office in June, former Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to concede that fracking would not lead to lower energy bills. This point needs to be hammered home to UK households and businesses who are about to see their energy bills spike upward. Nor should we let governments and the energy companies off the hook on the wider economics of fracking. While the owners of the energy companies stand to get rich off the pensions and savings pots invested in fracking, the industry itself has no chance of ever turning a profit. As the far more favourable US shale plays demonstrate, the handful of profitable “sweet spots” are more than cancelled out by the much larger number of wells that fail to produce. The result is that the energy companies ultimately go bust leaving ordinary investors out of pocket and leaving local authorities to pick up the bill for clearing up the mess.