To Frack or not to Frack? That is the question…!
It is always said that, “travel broadens the mind”. In the Institute we travel widely – both in the UK and much further afield. This has greatly enhanced our appreciation of the part consultation plays in decision-making and as an impact on people’s lives. We also ‘travel’ between different consultation environments – appreciating the similarities and variations we encounter.
This week we stepped into another of these new worlds, to meet an industry with which we’ve previously had no contact – although we’ve been watching developments there, with considerable interest.
The world of Fracking.
You almost expect to hear a doom-laden roll of thunder and see lightening streak across a lowering sky. The protest groups from Friends of the Earth to Fylde Against Fracking have been vigorously making their voices heard in every media. Turn on the television, listen to the radio, read the papers or scan the web and it is pretty impossible to miss the heated debates over the Government’s recent decision to overturn Lancashire County Council’s refusal to allow two sites to be explored for shale gas.
So it was very timely to be invited to attend the UK Shale Gas Summit, held at a Manchester Airport hotel. Rhion Jones was asked to chair a discussion on public engagement strategies with a panel consisting of a Local Authority planner, a communications expert and a feisty lady who has taken it upon herself to champion shale gas extraction as a benefit to the local economy.
Following a scene-setting description, looking at reputational risk, trust and the challenges of NIMBYism across a wide swathe of consultation and engagement scenarios it was time to tackle the specifics of the issues the fracking fraternity are facing. We heard how difficult it is to get the media to run positive pieces and how public meetings are packed by vociferous protestors (sometimes transported from afar by well-resourced national campaign groups?) There were stories of local individuals being cited as experts – frequently retired professionals – driven by emotion rather than facts. Familiar?
The local authority representative was asked how he would run an engagement exercise and he came out with a very pragmatic list of activities familiar to every planner, from putting up notices to running ‘drop in’ sessions, where people could spend time studying the information provided and actually discuss matters with officers – leaving with a better appreciation of the issues.
I had a déjà vu moment that took me back about twelve years. In the very early days of the Institute, we did quite a lot of work with the telecommunications industry. What did they want to do? Put up mobile telephone masts. How did the public feel about this? Very fearful, angry and full of protests. We heard then that public meetings were dreadful occasions, where people only came to shout at the companies, claiming everything from the terrible effects these masts would have on the health of the population to the detrimental impacts on house prices. The companies retreated to running drop-in sessions, where at least the pressure of numbers could be controlled and some attempt made to present a reasoned case.
Fast-forward to 2016 and here were all the same arguments being made in relation to public engagement over the extraction of shale gas. An industry seeming to be very much on the back foot.
The Consultation Institute exists to promote lawful and meaningful public consultation and best practice engagement generally. We are completely neutral on the pros and cons of fracking or any of the other very sensitive issues on which we run our Quality Assessment service. At this conference we also met with representatives from The Environment Agency (EA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as both organisations have parts to play in the fracking story. They, like us, are independent but keen to have their roles explained to the public. We were very interested to hear about their “Meet A Regulator” sessions, where, as well as EA and HSE staff, representatives from Public Health England and the Oil and Gas Authority are present to explain how they regulate the oil and gas industry to protect people and the environment. This has to be a most positive way to encourage information to be spread and help people make up their minds from a position of real knowledge.
I left the conference with very mixed feelings. This is new technology (as were mobile phone masts not so long ago) and sentiments are clearly highly divided. The jury is out on fracking. However, we do know how to engage and consult properly with the public and stakeholders and this industry must accept the challenge of doing these difficult exercises now – before matters become even more entrenched.