In our review we utilise a typology described by North et al. (2014) who describe public and stakeholder participation in shale development in terms of the various stages of an environmental decision process (Stern and Fineberg, 1996). There are nine stages in all, here distilled to the following six aspects for our analysis: early engagement (problem formulation and process design, including selecting options and outcomes), learning (including joint fact-finding and citizen science), decision-making, and post-development (monitoring, evaluation and adjustment). In practice, these categories often overlap. For example, early engagement may include fact finding by interested citizens.
Aims and methods
Literature also suggests that aims (what issues are explored and desired outcomes) should be clearly defined (Rowe and Frewer, 2000) and should heavily influence the choice of method. Different modes may be appropriate for different purposes and for different people (Chess and Purcell, 1999; Rowe and Frewer, 2000), and the most appropriate method will depend on the context of the issue, the desired outcome, the stage of development, and the participants and their preferences (e.g. TNS-BMRB, 2014). For example, drop-in centres and town hall meetings may be effective modes for engaging ‘neighbours’, while early, upstream engagement and moderated online discussion forums may be more effective for activists (Cotton, 2013).
The chosen methods in turn have important implications for the nature and depth of the discussions that emerge. For example, when aiming to elicit informed rather than uninformed preferences (Corner and Pidgeon, 2012), lengthier deliberation sessions that facilitate two-way communication may be more appropriate than a traditional survey (e.g. Thomas et al., 2017a; Williams et al., 2015).
It is important to note that how the method is used can be more important than which method is used, and organisers might consider modifying traditional methods or using a combination of different techniques (Chess and Purcell, 1999; Rowe and Frewer, 2000). When doing so, materials should be carefully calibrated to provide sufficient balanced information (Satterfield et al., 2012), as well as being sensitive to assumptions and considering how the mode and materials might frame the topic (Corner and Pidgeon, 2015). It might be appropriate to follow a methodology that ‘unframes’ the issues (Bellamy and Lezaun, 2015) or allows the public to some extent frame the issues themselves (Rowe et al., 2005; TNS-BMRB, 2014).
Provision for multi-way engagement
Participation can occur on a number of levels: from nonparticipation through informing (‘tokenism’) to partnership and citizen control where citizens have the most power in determining the end product (Arnstein, 1969). Historically, public engagement with risks per se would have been limited to a one-way flow of information between communicators and the public, who it was felt just needed to ‘understand the numbers’ in order to accept a risk (Fischhoff, 1995). However, multi-way communication enables publics to have meaningful input into decision processes rather than simply be communicated to (Fischhoff, 1995).
Therefore, public engagement has moved beyond constituting a means of persuasion to a two-way exchange that recognises the importance of psychological, cultural and social factors (Fischhoff, 1995; McComas, 2006; Pidgeon et al., 1992). Such questions may be particularly relevant in controversial issues such as shale development, where politics, culture and worldviews are shown to be important in shaping perceptions (see Cotton, 2013; Demski et al., 2015; Devine-Wright, 2009; Thomas et al., 2017b).
In our framework, we use the term ‘credibility’ to encompass a number of factors that can be described as contributing to the integrity and trustworthiness of an exercise. These involve being open and transparent during the engagement process (e.g. adequately publicising forums and results), being truthful and unbiased throughout, and appropriately responding to outcomes. Firstly, effectively publicising open events reduces the risks of excluding potential participants and exacerbating self-selection biases (Chess and Purcell, 1999). Secondly, truthful engagement practices reduce risks of alienating the public and (further) reducing levels of trust; although this is not a straightforward issue and accusations of bias and ‘untruths’ abound on both sides of the debate (e.g. Energy In Depth, 2012; Mobbs, 2015).
It is suggested that organisers should not promise to listen to feedback if there is no mechanism for doing so (Cotton, 2013), and be clear about what is known and not known, what the public can influence and what they cannot (TNS-BMRB, 2014). This is particularly important in an arena where the public perceives a lack of transparency and harbours a mistrust of industry and government (Thomas et al., 2017b). Participants will likely demand ‘confirmed facts’ and statistics (Thomas et al., 2017a; TNS-BMRB, 2014); but uncertainties should be explicitly acknowledged where they exist (Pidgeon and Fischhoff, 2011; Ruckelshaus, 1983).
Finally, the literature suggests that participation efforts should be carried out in an independent and unbiased way – and be viewed as such – and should also have a genuine impact on policy and be seen to do so (Rowe and Frewer, 2000). Indeed, responsible innovation requires developers to respond accordingly and rapidly to public input, even if it is not what they were hoping for (Potterf et al., 2014; Stilgoe et al., 2013). In practice, this can be challenging: for example, when individuals are ambivalent or polarised in their responses (Barvosa, 2015), it can be particularly difficult to base governance decisions upon their views. Aspects of ‘credibility’ are hard to gauge in the absence of formal evaluations (which, as discussed above, are rare) and thus have not been assessed for all of the engagements we reviewed. Relevant comments are in the final column of Table 1.
Table 1. Summary of case studies reviewed.
In this section, we provide an overview of engagement by each type of stakeholder: industry, alliances/consortia, government, academic, and activist. These are summarised in the five sections of Table 1, within which there is inevitably some overlap. First are those that might be described as constituting solicited, or ‘invited’ public input (Chilvers, 2010; Clarke et al., 2012; Wynne, 2007): that is, engagement by industry, alliances/consortia, government and some academic studies.
These are followed by those that might constitute unsolicited or ‘uninvited’ input: typically activists campaigning to bring about change, such as securing a lease deal or banning fracking in their municipality. For each, we provide a summary of the following facets: who runs the process and who participated; timing of engagement; aims and methods of engagement; whether there was provision for multi-way communication; and factors including the credibility of the engagement. We also provide a brief overview of each type of engagement (3.1–3.5). For a more thorough description of each case study, see Thomas and Pidgeon (2017).
We find that much industry engagement focuses on disseminating information about a project and gaining community acceptance/support, and therefore tends to be one-way. However, some engagement (particularly in Social Impact Assessments, or SIA) is more interested in identifying -and facilitating the management of- potential social impacts, and therefore seeks a higher level of public participation.
Engagement activities are wide-ranging, and include: sponsorship of public events; public meetings; using social media such as Twitter and Instagram; providing information via blogs and podcasts; maintaining grievance or complaint hotlines (see North et al., 2014); in-person meetings; and in the case of SIA, qualitative and/or quantitative data collection. Activities can be quite eclectic and innovative, for example the ‘Adopt-a-School Program’ run by large independent drilling company Williams Energy (The Williams Companies, 2017) and the ‘Rig Up and BBQ’ run by smaller independent company Payson Petroleum (2017). The stage at which engagement occurs inevitably relates to the aims and methods of engagement. In SIA this tends to be prior to exploration, but often it is during operations.
Engagement by industry can be organised by the companies themselves (commonly by dedicated community liaison officers or outsourced to public relations/media companies), by consultants, by intermediate organisations that act as go-betweens for industry-community communication (e.g. STEER, 2016), or as part of a consortium (Section 3.2). Participants tend to be members of the host communities and/or stakeholders such as landowners, community leaders and community beneficiaries.
Alliances and consortia
A number of alliances have been formed with the purpose of bringing together interested parties to share information, to improve shale development practices and facilitate interactions across state boundaries (e.g. Small et al., 2014). They include government consortia (e.g. IOGCC, 2017) and educational consortia (e.g. PennState PennState Extension, 2017), which are discussed in Sections 3.3 and 3.4 respectively. Here we discuss alliances between shale development companies (e.g. Marcellus Shale Coalition, 2017), between industry and environmental agencies (e.g. Center for Responsible Shale Development, 2016), and joint initiatives between non-profits and government bodies (e.g. FracFocus, 2017b).
The Marcellus Shale Coalition run a variety of engagement programmes including training, providing ‘fact sheets’ and maintaining a Speaker’s Bureau that can be booked for community events (Marcellus Shale Coalition, 2017). Another example is the Center for Responsible Shale Development (US), which provides independent third-party certification for companies who meet their performance standards (Center for Responsible Shale Development, 2016). Perhaps the most well-known alliance is FracFocus: the ‘national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry’, managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in the US (FracFocus, 2017b).
The FracFocus website was created to provide public access to reported chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing, and offers information on the fracturing process, groundwater protection and the purposes that various chemicals serve. While it is not intended to replace state governmental information systems, it is used by 23 states as a means of official chemical disclosure (FracFocus, 2017b). However, participating oil and gas companies submit the data on both a voluntary or regulatory basis, and some chemicals are not named due to trade secrets provisions (FracFocus, 2017b). Rules also vary as to whether disclosure must happen before fracking commences, as well as to factors such as the disclosure of geological formations that the well traverses, and the requirement for a factual justification of claims for confidentiality under trade secret exemptions (McFeeley, 2012).
A companion website is run by the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission in Canada (FracFocus, 2017a), and provides similar disclosure information to the US site. Our case studies mainly show limited direct public engagement, instead focusing on engagement with industry and regulatory stakeholders, albeit with publically accessible websites.
Governmental engagement ranges from encouraging conversations between stakeholders across different states (e.g. IOGCC, 2017) to facilitating citizen science via online interfaces, such as the Did You Feel It? initiative, which collects and displays earthquake intensity data submitted by members of the public (USGS, 2017). However, a large part of governmental engagement consists of detailed assessments. These include the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission (Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, 2011; Whitton et al., 2017) and Boulder County’s (Colorado) engagement in the US; as well as Alberta Energy Regulator’s jurisdictional review (ERCB, 2011), and Quebec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE, 2011) in Canada.
Such reports vary in quality, but Canada’s Nova Scotia Independent Review Panel on Hydraulic Fracturing (Atherton et al., 2014) stands out as particularly thorough and transparent. The full report covers various aspects of shale development, including development processes, the resource base, development scenarios, various potential positive and negative impacts, public participation, regulatory issues, and a set of recommendations. An independent panel of experts from a range of disciplines oversaw the exercise, and stakeholders (individuals, organisations, members of the public) were invited to participate in a number of ways.
These included: commenting on skill sets to incorporate into the selection process for expert panellists; recommending candidate panellists; bidding for technical advisory work; submitting written evidence; participating in online discussions, surveys and public meetings; and providing commentary on discussion papers and recommendations. Although quite long and detailed, the report does contain a good deal of background information about processes and defines relevant terminology, which we suggest aids its clarity and usability. Appendices include the most common questions asked at public meetings, and answers to them. Part of the engagement effort was a Public Participatory Risk Assessment, in which 238 unique submissions were analysed, and issues of concern ranked and related to the literature, including a synthesis of the academic review results with the views of the participants.
Most of the governmental assessments we reviewed engaged members of the public. While the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER)/ERCB report focussed on engaging regulators (ERCB, 2011), this body has since published a promising Stakeholder Engagement Framework (Alberta Energy Regulator, 2017), which details a strategy that aims to incorporate a number of the aspects we recommend in the suggested framework. These include: careful planning and preparation; inclusion and demographic diversity; openness and learning; transparency and trust; impact and action; sustained engagement; as well as involving two-way engagement and incorporating recommendations. This framework is designed for AER staff to plan engagement activities, and as a standard that stakeholders and publics can expect when engaging with the AER.
Common methods of governmental engagement are public meetings and invited input via letters and emails, which indicates that engagement tends to elicit input from the most concerned individuals rather than a more representative sample of the public. Most of the reports that we reviewed were carried out at early stages of development (or during moratoria) as fact-finding and scoping projects, with the exception of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission that was undertaken while large-scale shale development continued. As a side note, there was concern over the composition of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, which was perceived by some of the participants to have too many members of the natural gas industry and of the Governor’s Administration (Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, 2011). Despite this drawback, the engagement exercise did have a clear impact on policy, with the Commission’s recommendations forming the foundation for Act 13, which updated state legislation (Whitton et al., 2017).
In another case with traceable impact, Boulder County carried out public engagement concerning the revision or maintenance of oil and gas regulations during a temporary moratorium on accepting new applications for oil and gas development (Boulder County, 2017a). During the consultation, the website stated that ‘based on the Public Hearing, the Board believes that the responsible state and federal agencies may not be adequately addressing these impacts’ (Boulder Boulder County, 2017b).
It should be noted, however, that while the public were asked to consider whether existing regulations are sufficient or should be modified, and whether a moratorium should be extended, many of the public comments indicated that a more appropriate question would have been, ‘should shale development go ahead at all?’, i.e. what Cotton (2017) terms the ‘need case’. An important point here is that such a question is rendered largely irrelevant in this case, because the Colorado Supreme Court has stated that local bans and lengthy moratoria are not permitted under state law (Boulder County, 2017a).
Engagement by academics includes that designed to disseminate information, and that designed to learn more about public and other stakeholder perceptions of development. First we considered the work of two US-based academic groups working to engage interested parties via disseminating evidence-led information: Physicians, Scientists and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy (PSE Healthy Energy, 2017), and Pennsylvania State University Marcellus Educational Consortium (PennState Extension, 2017). Though they take different stances on shale development, both aim to provide evidence-based and unbiased research to various stakeholders, have a focus on information dissemination, and appear to involve a limited level of multi-way engagements.
We also considered scholarly perception studies. These are relevant in a discussion of engagement activities firstly because such perceptions have been shown to be a precursor to civic action (Theodori, 2013), and secondly because the very act of eliciting these perceptions is an engagement exercise in itself. This research includes a limited amount of work looking explicitly at how members of the public engage with shale development (including voting behaviour, protest and landowner coalitions), and is discussed in Section 3.5 below. More commonly it is interested in public perceptions of shale development more generally, as discussed by Thomas et al. (2017b), who show that scholarly engagement has tended to be more inclusive of individuals less directly affected by development than other types of engagement, on account of recruiting wider populations in addition to directly affected ones.
Activism describes a process of campaigning to bring about change. It can take many forms: the anti-fracking movement in the US and Canada includes large international environmental groups such as Greenpeace (2017) through small grass roots groups formed to oppose shale development in a particular locale, to high-profile celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo (Navarro, 2011).
Methods of engagement include protests and disseminating information via social media, with anti-fracking activists in particular having generated a strong internet presence (Willow, 2014). Another method of engagement involves providing support for legal challenges. For example Earth Justice, the US’s largest non-profit environmental law organisation, provided legal representation when an oil and gas company appealed against a ban in Dryden, New York, in 2014; culminating in a victory that sent a state-wide precedent upholding the rights of local communities to use municipal zoning powers to ban or limit fracking (Jordan-Bloch and Sutcliffe, 2014).
Activism can have very different aims, and community-led activism in particular is proving successful in negotiating lease deals and lobbying for (responsible) gas drilling (Jacquet and Stedman, 2011; Liss, 2011). For example, in the case of Mistletoe Heights, Texas, the community appointed a committee of residents to negotiate a better deal for leases and succeeded in attracting competition from another company, which significantly increased the bonuses secured for leasing (Liss, 2011).
Our activist case studies show that individual action as well as collective action has exerted considerable influence in the US and Canada. For example, the 2010 film Gasland, which has been promoted by anti-fracking campaigners worldwide, was largely the vision of one man; the director Josh Fox. The film attracted considerable media attention (Jaspal et al., 2014) and popularised ‘potent images of hazard’ including flaming water and tainted aquifers (Mazur, 2014, p. 207). It also contributed to anti-fracking mobilisations that in-turn affected the passage of local fracking moratoria (Vasi et al., 2015).
It is clear from our review that some sectors and stakeholders are investing significant time and resources in engagement around shale development. But how effective is this engagement? In this section, we draw upon the ‘best practice framework’ (Fig. 1) to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this engagement practice in the US and Canada, and the implications for future engagement.
Who participates and how
We found a variety of participants engaging with shale development. These ranged from industry representatives to engaged activists, but tended to focus on interested individuals in part due to the types of methods utilised (e.g. information campaigns on websites, complaint hotlines, public meetings). Moving forward, a number of questions might be answered before an engagement exercise proceeds. Should the aim be to engage a ‘mini-public’ of average citizens, or more interested proponents/opponents (‘uninvited’ publics) who may have a more direct stake in the issue (Pidgeon et al., 2017)?
Should participation garner the deep engagement of a small sample, or a lighter touch engagement with a large population? Is the aim to elicit the views of those who are most likely to protest, or the views of those whose voice has not yet been heard (Rowe et al., 2005)? Or are there key stakeholders who can act as go-betweens with the wider community (e.g. IOGP, 2017; Potterf et al., 2014)?