- Review of 26 shale engagement efforts carried out by US and Canadian stakeholders.
- We discuss strengths and weaknesses based on a ‘best practice framework’.
- Much engagement is late in development and focuses on interested / affected parties.
- We discuss what may limit engagement practice and how it might be improved.
Merryn Thomasa, Nick Pidgeona, Michael Bradshawb
aUnderstanding Risk Group and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Psychology, Cardiﬀ University, Tower Building, 70 Park Place, Cardiﬀ, CF10 3AT, UK. bWarwick Business School, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL, UK
Received 9 March 2018 – Accepted 27 July 2018
Public and stakeholder engagement with shale development is difficult, but essential. We review 26 engagement processes carried out by US and Canadian companies, alliances, government agencies, academics and activists; systematically exploring who participates, the stage at which engagements take place, aims and methods, provision for multiway engagement, and issues of credibility. We find a multitude of actors carrying out engagement using a variety of formats, ranging from barbeque events and town hall meetings to citizen science and in-depth qualitative research. Whilst we find many strengths, we also highlight a number of weaknesses.
Much of this engagement does not occur at the earliest stages of development, and rarely asks the most fundamental question -whether shale development should proceed at all- instead commonly focusing on questions of impact minimisation, regulation and gaining support. Furthermore, the majority of activities tend to elicit the responses of interested and affected parties, with much less attention to views of the wider public. We reflect on what may be limiting engagement practice, and discuss how engagement might be improved.
Engaging with shale gas and oil extraction
Oil and gas production from shale deposits has grown significantly in the US and Canada during the last decade. This has been made possible in part by directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) techniques, whereby pressurised liquid, sand and chemicals are injected into deep shale formations to fracture the rock and facilitate the flow of oil and gas. Such techniques have been deployed for around 20 years in some US states, and in some cases full-scale extraction is now taking place (e.g., Pennsylvania, Texas).
In others, proposals have been surrounded by significant environmental and legal controversy, on occasion leading to local, regional or statewide moratoria and bans (e.g., New York, Maryland). In Canada, rapid development has concentrated in the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, while the practice has been the subject of moratoria and bans in eastern provinces (Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick).
Engagement1 is one key part of responsible development, particularly for controversial projects like shale gas extraction. On a basic level, people have a ‘right to know’ about the risks they may face (Renn and Levine, 1991). In democratic societies, potentially affected people also have a right to be heard, and public participation can both increase legitimacy and improve confidence in decision makers (Beierle and Cayford, 2002; Fiorino, 1990). Another motive is that some aspects of lay risk judgments are as sound (or more so) than expert risk judgments, meaning that local knowledge can add a valuable layer to risk understandings and improve the quality of decisions; ultimately leading to more sustainable choices (Fiorino, 1990; Irwin and Wynne, 1996; Stern and Dietz, 2008).
Some commentators cite shale development as a human rights issue, arguing that it should be the subject of detailed human rights impact assessments (Short et al., 2015). Indeed, Cotton (2017) argues that in the case of shale development, where risks and benefits are unevenly distributed, environmental justice can only be achieved by re-localising the scale of fracking governance, which in turn requires effective community participation and decision making.
Public engagement is not only desirable, but in some cases is a prerequisite for development. In Canada, governments have a constitutional obligation to consult First Nations (Indigenous Peoples) if their rights might be affected (Council of Canadian Academies, 2014). Likewise, a number of US states (e.g. Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Texas) are in some form required to publically disclose the chemical constituents of fracking fluid (FracFocus, 2018), although as discussed later, this is a complicated picture.
From an industry perspective, as opposition to shale development increases in many regions, companies are increasingly recognising that effective engagement is essential in order to obtain a ‘social license’ to operate (see Brändle et al., 2016). Regardless of whether engagement is mandatory or voluntary, the oil and gas industry is realising that companies active in community engagement, and who listen and respond to community concerns, are viewed more positively (Potterf et al., 2014). Indeed, the business and management approach tends to frame social license in terms of risk management, whereby engaging the public is a means to reduce reputational and economic risks (Jones et al., 2013; Morrison, 2014); and a company’s favourable actions may not only benefit themselves individually, but also the wider industry (Potterf et al., 2014).
Ultimately, without engaging the public in meaningful conversation, shale developers cannot hope to proceed in truly acceptable way. The public may wish to place conditions on development that can be easily met through discussion and adapting proposals; or alternatively, engagement may highlight ‘red-line’ issues (e.g. climate change or water quality), whereby no level of negotiation or compensation will lead to acceptance (Thomas et al., 2017a). In both cases, it benefits industry, policy makers and publics to have these conversations early.
This review surveys the enormous breadth of engagement activities that are taking place around shale development in two countries at the forefront of engagement – the US and Canada. In doing so, we shed light on the varied opportunities that are available for engagement between different stakeholders and publics2, and help inform future engagement strategies, both here and in countries where shale development is more emergent. We begin by outlining a suggested ‘best practice framework’, based upon engagement and participation literature.
We then review case studies of engagement processes in the US and Canada, before drawing on these to discuss implications for future engagement here and elsewhere. Whilst we concentrate on cases where the public are the participants rather than the conveners of engagement, we recognise that publics are proactively engaging with development across the US and Canada, and include a short discussion about engagement by activists, both in support of and in opposition to shale development (Section 3.5).
Why engagement is hard
A number of factors render engagement with shale development difficult. Firstly, there are the characteristics of this energy source itself. As with many other risk issues, information is contested, with the same data being interpreted to inform the conclusion that shale gas will mitigate or increase greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. Clarke et al., 2012). High levels of uncertainty render shale development a ‘post-normal’ risk -a problem too complex or too uncertain to yield to science alone (Rosa, 1998)- rendering public engagement a matter of co-production by publics and traditional science communication, whereby publics can participate in the risk characterisation process (Chilvers and Kearnes, 2015; Pidgeon et al., 2017).
The complexity of shale development also encompasses local level and large-scale societal questions (Clarke et al., 2012), posing particular challenges associated with the ‘energy trilemma’ (the reconciliation of climate, security and affordability goals), which disparate publics are likely to evaluate differently (Pidgeon et al., 2017). All of these factors apply not only to the US and Canada, but elsewhere.
Secondly, there are issues relating to governance and regulation, which, while more country-specific, also show similar patterns in various countries. One factor is the ‘complex web’ of governance, which in the US spans federal through regional, state and local (Whitton et al., 2017, p.12). While this might provide multiple opportunities to engage, it also provides a potentially confusing pathway for participation (Whitton et al., 2017). Here, shale companies function at a number of different scales: some operate more than a thousand wells in a state, while others operate only one (Nash, 2013), which means that inevitably some have a lot more capacity and resources for engagement than others.
The dispersed nature of shale activities, and the changeable nature of the actors involved (e.g. as leases are bought and sold) also make it difficult to learn from experience (North et al., 2014). Another complicating factor is the private ownership of subsurface rights in the US, which limits wider participation in transactions (Whitton et al., 2017).
Alongside this, with some exceptions (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 2018), shale development has largely been regulated under the auspices of existing conventional oil and gas regulation, meaning that public engagement with new regulations has been limited (Whitton et al., 2017). Also, a lack of transparency in shale operations has meant that publics have found it difficult to access information in order to engage (Whitton et al., 2017), particularly in the US. As noted above, some US States require disclosure of the content of fracking fluid, for example, but others do not and commercial sensitivity has often been cited to constrain transparency.
Equally, the sheer scale and pace of drilling operations can often render disclosure and monitoring impractical. Opportunities for participation are also limited in some states by legislation, for example in Boulder County (Colorado) and in Pennsylvania, where the Oil and Gas Act ‘essentially pre-empts the ability of local communities to regulate oil and gas activity’ (Whitton et al., 2017 p17). Denton, Texas, is another case point, where the town’s ban was overturned by state legislation that secures the state government’s unilateral authority over oil and gas development (Rice, 2016). Notably, this is also the case in the UK, where central Government overturned the decision by elected Lancashire County Councillors to refuse planning permission for shale gas drilling (Bradshaw and Waite, 2017).
Thirdly, and again in North America as well as elsewhere, there are the characteristics of the stakeholders and publics involved. As with any risk, different people require different information, depending on many factors including their values and experience (Clarke et al., 2012). People have different levels of knowledge about shale development, many showing little awareness of the issue, particularly in areas not affected by development (Thomas et al., 2017b).
This can mean that if asked to state their opinion (e.g. in a one-off survey), they will draw on their ‘mental models’ of other technologies (Morgan et al., 2002) or respond to whatever information is available. For example, they may respond negatively to the word ‘fracking’ or positively to the word ‘technology’ (Evensen et al., 2014; Pidgeon et al., 2009). When asked, individuals are often ambivalent or polarised in their responses (Barvosa, 2015), meaning basing governance decisions upon their views can be difficult.
Despite these obstacles, effective engagement is essential. On the one hand, poorly executed dialogue and communication processes can ‘rapidly escalate concerns’ around the siting of energy technologies (Pidgeon & Demski, 2012, p. 41). On the other, well-executed engagement campaigns offer many potential benefits as outlined in Section 1.1. In our review, we provide clarity on this issue and insight into the strengths and weakness of particular case studies, in order to suggest implications for future engagement practices. We also discuss insights from the wider risk communication literature that may be relevant when developing engagement strategies. We hope that our findings will contribute to more meaningful opportunities for publics and other stakeholders to engage in the shale debate and shape the issues that might affect them.
Our review does not include all of the companies, interest groups, activists, agencies and academics that have been involved in shale-related engagement efforts in the US and Canada. Instead, we aim to reflect the enormous breadth of activities undertaken, and in so doing provide an overview useful to community, academic, government and industry stakeholders. The engagement efforts reviewed here were collated by snowballing from reports, recommendation by experts, and by carrying out internet searches using Google (e.g. “Canada anti-fracking”) and Google Scholar (e.g. “public engagement hydraulic fracturing USA”).
Our criteria for including case studies in the review were firstly that they should be relevant, i.e. involve ‘engagement’, defined here as interactions between industry, public and other actors (including more unusual interactions such as film making and providing legal support). Secondly, they should together cover a wide variety of modes of engagement and types of participant, in order that we could thoroughly scope the engagement landscape in the two countries. Sources comprise mainly publically available reports and websites (e.g. Atherton et al., 2014; Boulder County, 2017b), with some peer reviewed literature (e.g. Theodori, 2013).
It is difficult to say definitively which engagement efforts have ‘succeeded’ and which have ‘failed’. This is because a multitude of factors come into play when decisions about development are made, and because formal evaluations of engagement exercises can be problematic (Bickerstaff et al., 2010; Rowe et al., 2005, 2008), and are thus rare (Kurath and Gisler, 2009). For a UK shale example, see Icaro (2014); for an example in the realm of genetically modified crops, see Rowe et al. (2005) and Pidgeon et al. (2005).
Measurement can be challenging because of lack of knowledge about baseline beliefs and attitudes, compounded by difficulties in identifying an end-point to the engagement exercise (Rowe et al., 2005), if indeed there is such an end-point (Brändle et al., 2016). Plus, any effects may be due to other variables such as the social context of particular engagement activities (e.g. who participates and why), the nature of the problem (e.g. timescale), or simultaneous events like local elections (Chess and Purcell, 1999). It also depends on whose preferred outcome is used to base an evaluation: it is not only the industry view that is relevant, but also sponsor perspectives, participant perspectives and normative perspectives on how engagement in general should be conducted (Rowe et al., 2005; Webler, 1995).
Due to these inherent subjectivities and conditionalities, participation efforts cannot be easily evaluated according to the success of their outcome. We instead propose a ‘best practice framework’ focused on the engagement processes, summarised in Fig. 1. This framework is based upon the literature cited below, which includes contributions by various risk and public perceptions scholars, and particularly the work of Rowe and Frewer (2000).
Fig. 1. A framework for engagement best practice.
Who participates and how
Literature suggests that organisers and facilitators should be appropriately qualified to carry out engagement exercises and that participants should ideally be broadly representative of the affected population (Rowe and Frewer, 2000). However, the notion that the only legitimate participants are representative (and ‘invited’) is contested in risk perception research. While it is essential to engage individuals in the immediate area, shale gas/oil development has national and global ramifications (e.g. impacts on energy security and climate change) as well as local ones, and thus it is also important to engage more widely (Partridge et al., 2017). Indeed, both invited and uninvited publics can have legitimate roles to play in risk engagement and decision-making.
Not least, those with a stake in a development may have specialist or local knowledge, be disproportionately affected, be more likely to oppose/support a project, or voice concerns that are not necessarily included in formal risk assessments (Pidgeon, 1998). While invited publics may be expected to more closely represent the views of the ‘average citizen’, uninvited publics can challenge the normative assumptions and framings that accompany ‘invited’ participation – for example what should be left to the organisers rather than the participants, and what questions are valid (Wynne, 2007). Having said this, defining the ‘community’ of interest may not be straightforward, and Cotton (2017) points out that injustices may occur when a community is defined by spatial proximity (e.g. those closest to a well), or by role involvement (e.g. members of social movements).
It is also important to recognise that views are changeable: an individual may simultaneously hold conditional, ambivalent and sometimes contradictory views about a given technology (Henwood and Pidgeon, 2014). Furthermore, the importance of context means that a ‘one size fits all’ approach may not be appropriate (Thomas et al., 2017a). Communicators may wish to seek to understand the local and national context in which participation occurs, and be sensitive to cultural and social differences, gender, values and so on. This includes how publics view their locales, and understand place attachments and sense of identity (Pidgeon and Demski, 2012), which might influence, for example, the strength of feeling about proposed changes to that place.
There is a growing literature focusing on the ways in which people participate in engagement exercises. Any participation exercise will be complicated by the ways in which public roles are framed by the very settings in which public engagement occurs (Bickerstaff et al., 2010), and in turn the ways in which the participants themselves transform these roles and identities, and construct themselves in relation to wider publics (Felt and Fochler, 2010) and other participants (e.g. Thomas et al., 2018). In other words, how engagement makes and is made by those who participate in it (Michael, 2009). Chilvers et al. (2015) argue that energy participation should take account of the diverse, complex and continually emerging ways in which people engage with issues, and that a participatory practice should be recognised as being shaped by, and in turn shaping, the object (e.g. fracking), models (participatory practice/method) and subjects (participants).
Timing of engagement
It is recommended that engagement begins as early as possible in the development process (Chess and Purcell, 1999; Rowe and Frewer, 2000; Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1998; Ruckelshaus, 1983; Stern and Fineberg, 1996; Wilsdon and Willis, 2004), and continues throughout development (IOGP, 2017; TNS-BMRB, 2014). Not only can failure to attend to dialogue during early stages be particularly costly in subsequent stages of risk characterization (Stern and Fineberg, 1996); but anticipation can open up ‘what if’ style questions that recognise uncertainty, thus increasing resilience to potential outcomes (Stilgoe et al., 2013).
In discussions of ‘upstream’ public participation in the context of nano-technologies, Rogers-Hayden and Pidgeon (2007, p. 359) argue that ‘early engagement doesn’t necessarily mean that controversy will be avoided or even that this should be/is a goal of early engagement’. They further point out that engagement needs to happen early enough to be constructive but late enough to be meaningful (or at least involve appropriate, well-grounded deliberation). Literature on the ‘social license to operate’ also makes clear the need for continual engagement throughout the project in order to keep communities informed as development continues (Brändle et al., 2016). Thus, while early engagement may not be a panacea, timing is clearly important and should be carefully considered, alongside suitable methods for engagement (see 2.3).