British Study Explores Role of Information Sharing Amidst Shale Gas Development

A 2020 article published in Energy Research and Social Science examines the online presence of English shale gas information. Researchers looked at how access to a wealth of information about shale gas online has led to challenges for those on both sides of the shale debate in the UK. Research emphasized that while anti-shale development activism has flourished online, a variety of factors lead to more restraint in online information dissemination by the shale industry and local governments.

The study pulled information from 37 interviews conducted between 2011 and 2018; 10 interviewees self-identified as pro-shale (these participants ranged from industry members, consultants, and/or academics in support of the field), 20 interviewees self-identified as anti-shale (participants in this category identified as members of anti-shale groups, climate justice activists, or employees of environmental NGOs), and 7 interviewees who categorized themselves as neutral (largely those who worked in regulatory agencies or academic positions).

Researchers focused on shale development in the United Kingdom, which was first impacted by seismic activity following inadvertent injections of fracturing fluid into an unknown fault in 2011. Following this incident, researchers asserted that government and industry officials largely refrained from disseminating information online, fearing misinformation and waiting for more development in the area to create new research and data to be shared. Officials hoped that this approach of sharing UK-experience-specific, expert-generated technical information to inform citizens about the realities of fracking would bolster support and quell uncertainty.

In contrast, anti-shale activists did not seem to wait. Online information against shale proliferated, and anti-shale participants remarked in interviews that relative quiet from industry and government officials led to widespread public belief in a cover-up of information. Much anti-shale information was circulated through social media platforms, platforms more easily accessible for activists and individuals than government and industry officials.

Researchers pointed to three factors that further exacerbated the divide in online information from pro-shale and anti-shale perspectives. First, researchers pointed out that the inherent complexity of shale gas processes and technology makes clear sharing of information challenging with the general public. Furthermore, researchers asserted that as the body of information on shale gas exponentially began to increase, the regulation of this information decreased, creating difficulty for the public in navigating the validity of the vast information available.

This UK case study, though from a region experiencing shale gas development in a markedly different way than Pennsylvania, still serves as a valuable perspective for local stakeholders. Assuring public understanding of energy development is essential. Industry and government organizations need to work together to communicate accurate, unbiased information to the public so that informed decisions can be made moving forward.

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