Don't Frack With Pittsburgh

December 14, 2012, by Warren Pearce

The Threat of Fracking: Real or Constructed?

Guest post by Dr. Rusi Jaspal, Research Fellow on the ESRC’s Climate Change as a Complex Social Issue programme in the School of Sociology & Social Policy. (This post can be read in conjunction with Rusi’s 2014 article in The Conversation)

Global energy consumption is likely to rise significantly over the next two decades with some estimates indicating an annual rise of 1.6%. It is widely acknowledged that fossil fuels are not a viable long-term energy source, given that they are non-renewable and are generally viewed as the primary cause of global climate change. However, it seems that they will nonetheless continue to provide the World’s energy for the foreseeable future. There has been an anxious search for novel fossil fuels which can form part of our “energy mix.” Shale gas is a compelling example. After a lengthy battle over shale gas extraction through hydraulic fracking, which played out online, in the traditional press and on the Cuadrilla Resources drilling site, the UK government finally approved shale gas extraction on 13th December 2012. Crucially, this decision has not met with universal approval and the battle continues.

The dash for shale

Shale gas has been described by advocates as the new “game-changer.” It is claimed that there could be up to 5.6 trillion cubic metres of shale gas located in the Bowland shale under Lancashire alone, which could radically reduce both Britain’s reliance on imported fuel and household energy costs. Energy independence (from seemingly unreliable trading partners) and lower household bills – what could be better? However, the process of hydraulic fracturing (popularly known as “fracking”) is highly controversial – opponents state that it is too risky to implement, while advocates claim that the “minimal” risks associated with fracking are worthwhile and that previous “mistakes” won’t be repeated. In the debate on fracking, the benefits, risks, and obstacles have remained the same, but their social, rhetorical and linguistic framings have shifted in accordance with time and context. These framings have been pivotal in shaping public understanding of fracking. In our ESRC-funded project on climate change as a complex social issue, we have been examining the social, rhetorical and linguistic framings around climate change, its mitigation technologies and alternative energy sources. In our recent examinations of the debate on fracking, we have found that threat, broadly defined, is an important rhetorical device in popular representations of fracking.

The threat representation: The human face of fracking

In our analysis of UK media reporting on fracking at three points during the debate, we have found a polarisation of reporting between “anti-fracking” outlets (The Guardian and The Independent), on the one hand, and “pro-fracking” outlets (The Times and the Telegraph), on the other. In April 2011, the anti-fracking outlets drew heavily upon Josh Fox’s 2010 award-winning documentary film Gasland, which set out to explore the views and experiences of residents affected by fracking in the US, and attributed various environmental and chronic health problems to the practice, in order to exemplify the dangers that potentially lie ahead for the UK. Images of people setting fire to tap water and first-hand accounts of serious health problems (allegedly traceable to fracking) were powerfully illustrative of the “threat” of fracking. Conversely, The Telegraph and The Times tended to play down the threat, constructing the documentary film as an exaggeration or as factually inaccurate.

At the end of April 2011, there were reports of tremors in the Lancashire area, where fracking was underway. Media reporting on this new chapter in the debate clearly showed the power of language and categorisation in shaping representations of fracking. Pro- and anti-fracking outlets differed in the terms they employed – while the pro-fracking outlets referred to the events as “seismic activity” and “tremors,” the anti-fracking outlets consistently referred to them as “earthquakes.” Of course, the term “earthquakes” evoked imagery of disaster and destruction, which would have been particularly vivid more or less in the immediate aftermath of the deadly April 2011 Fukushima earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale. On the other hand, pro-fracking outlets were keen to normalise the seismic events by referring to them as “everyday” occurrences and as harmless. In short, the terms, categories and metaphors used to describe the events in turn shaped the risks and dangers that could “reasonably” be attributed to fracking.

Rather interestingly, climate change (the primary reason that we became interested in fracking) was quite subordinate to the aforementioned images of threat. It was, however, cursorily invoked by the anti-fracking outlets in order to undermine fracking – the argument was that, as a fossil fuel, shale gas was a carbon reduction “target-buster” which would make us indefinitely reliant on fossil fuels and therefore have detrimental outcomes for climate change mitigation. Similarly, the pro-fracking outlets were quite keen to exploit the “threat potential” of competing energy alternatives. The Telegraph and The Times consistently acknowledged the positive outcomes for employment (at a time when some 2.5 million people were out of work) and the positive economic benefits (after the worst global recession since World War II) of fracking, and conversely constructed “green energy” as detrimental to both the economy and to livelihoods. More specifically, it was argued that green energy would result in higher costs, a lower standard of living and have few benefits for mitigating climate change. Incidentally, climate change was, rather unusually, wholeheartedly acknowledged in order to construct green energy as a threat.

It seems that there has been a strategic “instrumentalisation” of risk constructions in the debate on fracking.

The Social Construction of Fracking

What our work on fracking attempts to show is that the social and linguistic framings of hazard, risk and threat are pivotal in the debate on fracking. These framings shape our risk perceptions and hint at the risks that we should and should not take. They provide us with “suitable” comparisons and, thus, concrete images of the risks and dangers. Essentially, both the pro- and anti-fracking camps are engaged in a struggle over meaning construction – while one camp constructs the practice of fracking as excessively risky, the other camp minimises, normalises and justifies the risk. Which camp is ultimately successful in the struggle over meaning depends largely on both timing and the rhetorical “resources” that are drawn upon. With Gasland and the seismic activity (termed “earthquakes” in less sympathetic media reporting) in Lancashire, the anti-fracking camp acquired powerful rhetoric resources for demonising fracking. With the publication of the DECC report in April 2012 which supported the implementation of fracking and the recent go-ahead from UK government ministers, the pro-fracking camp have acquired greater currency. The next chapter in the debate on fracking remains to be seen but it seems likely that risk, danger and trust will continue to feature prominently in arguments for and against the practice.

Further reading

Jaspal, R. & Nerlich, B. (2012). Fracking in the UK Press: Threat Dynamics in an Unfolding Debate. Working paper, University of Nottingham.

Nerlich, B., Turner, A. & Jaspal, R. (2012). From Gasland to Gas Workers: Examining the Social and Psychological Impact of Fracking in YouTube Videos. Working paper, University of Nottingham

O’Hara, S., Humphrey, M., Jaspal, R., Nerlich, B., Poberezshkaya (2012). Shale gas extraction in the UK: What the people think. Working paper, University of Nottingham.

Image credit: Don’t Frack With Pittsburgh (by Marcellus Protest)

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