Morgan et al. (2002) further recommend that communicators explore what participants already know and perceive of the issues before further engagement commences. This strategic listening (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011, p. 35) is important because ‘there is no way to know what information people need without doing research that begins by listening to them.’ We would stress here however that participants may have deep local, lay (or indeed ‘expert’) knowledge, and some of the documents that we reviewed stressed the importance of local knowledge in designing and carrying out engagement exercises (IOGP, 2017; Potterf et al., 2014). Furthermore, academic engagements have shown that attitudes towards development stem from a lot more than just knowledge (Thomas et al., 2017b); again reiterating the importance of context.
Timing of engagement
We found that engagement efforts tend to have predefined aims such as scoping potential impacts, reviewing existing legislation, and providing information; and that the stage of engagement corresponds with these aims. For example, early engagement is used to scope the risks from shale development in SIA, and to understand the causes of conflicts (e.g. in the New Brunswick Commission on Hydraulic Fracturing). Conversely, complaint hotlines are used during development to hear concerns; and citizen science projects are utilised to monitor impacts as they occur. In the meantime, anti-fracking media (e.g. Gasland) are drawing upon the experiences of impacted areas to engage people in regions not yet affected. Despite this range of engagement stages, we concur with North et al. (2014) in noting that not enough engagement happens at the beginning of development, particularly amongst industry, alliances and consortia. If the right methods are used (for example those which involve deliberation), engagement can happen much earlier.
Aims and methods
While the archetypal public meeting is certainly a popular form of engagement (North et al., 2014), our review shows that a myriad of engagement methods are being used across the US and Canada. Methods range from a Tweet, through in-depth interviews with affected landowners, to ongoing stakeholder collaborations. Some methods are quite innovative (on both sides of the debate), and include coffin races (Rice, 2016) and ‘Rig Up and BBQ’ events (Payson Petroleum, 2017). As recommended in the framework (Section 2.3), particular methods appear to be chosen depending on the aim of engagement and who participates.
For example, while government assessments often favour public meetings (e.g. Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, 2011), web-based fora are important for industry-led community liaison projects and citizen-science (e.g. Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation, 2017; USGS, 2017). Scholarly participation efforts on the other hand use a wide range of methodologies, including quantitative surveys (e.g. Evensen et al., 2014), qualitative interviews (e.g. Jacquet and Stedman, 2011), and occasionally deliberative fora (e.g. Thomas et al., 2017a), each with their own merits and challenges (see Thomas et al., 2017b for a discussion).
Provision for multi-way engagement
With such a variety of engagement methods, the level of multiway communication varies. Governmental reports and activist engagements tended to perform a good deal of multi-way engagement, but alliances and consortia much less. A common industry focus on one-way information provision and public hearings (see also North et al., 2014; Whitton et al., 2017), perhaps reflects an information deficit approach that assumes providing more information will lead to acceptance. While one-way information provision is in some cases an improvement for a traditionally secretive industry, future engagements might consider advice from risk communication experts (Fischhoff, 1995; McComas, 2006; Pidgeon et al., 1992) and public relations commentators alike (Minty, 2016) who have recognised that providing more information alone is not an effective form of engagement.
Some engagement efforts take considerable steps to increase independence and reduce bias (e.g. the Nova Scotia Independent Review Panel on Hydraulic Fracturing, Atherton et al., 2014). However, many of the sources that we reviewed (reports, papers, company websites etc.) do not tend to provide sufficient detail to be able to state whether engagement processes were independent and unbiased, and unfortunately formal evaluations (e.g. Icaro, 2014) are hard to come by. In their absence, we can surmise to some extent whether engagement efforts were likely to be viewed as credible, by considering who ran the process (Thomas et al., 2017b). For example, an engagement exercise run by university researchers or community members is more likely to be viewed as independent than one run by industry or anti-fracking groups.
Similarly, as noted in Section 2, it is difficult (if not impossible) to trace how particular engagement exercises may influence development outcomes. Some engagement exercises, such as the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, had a clear impact on policy (Whitton et al., 2017) while some, such as the film Gasland, attracted considerable media attention. Without reading each individual public contribution and analysing the nature of any deliberations, it is not possible to say definitively whether end results reflect the wishes of the public. However, in some cases it is clear that they do not. In Denton, Texas, activist-led public engagement efforts were successful in securing a ban, but the ban was subsequently overturned.
Indeed, oil and gas companies have filed various lawsuits objecting to democratically implemented fracking bans such as this, and US Government regulation is only adjusting modestly to public concerns about the technology; leading Barvosa (2015, p. 497) to suggest that the ‘incorporation of public perspectives into science and technology governance is clearly still limited’. This is exacerbated by our finding that many engagements neglect to ask the most fundamental question -whether shale development should occur at all- and instead focus on where development should occur, how negative impacts should be minimised and benefits maximised, and what regulations should be in place. Without asking the right questions, and responding to them appropriately, shale engagement cannot be truly ‘credible’.
While evaluating the outcomes of engagement campaigns is problematic, we have here highlighted examples of best practice in engagement processes. We have found that extensive engagement is occurring among various parties in the US and Canada, and a number of engagements exhibit multiple elements of our best practice framework. Particularly notable are: the Nova Scotia Review (Atherton et al., 2014) for its early engagement, thoroughness and transparency; academic studies for their involvement of a wide variety of participants (including non-interest samples); industry and activists for employing a range of innovative methods; and governmental reports and activist engagements for multi-way engagement. There are promising signs that engagements will improve in future, particularly with the publication of AER’s recent guidelines in Canada (Alberta Energy Regulator, 2017) and similar frameworks elsewhere (Australian Energy Regulator, 2017).
However, we also find common themes where engagement practice could be improved. Firstly, much engagement does not occur at the earliest stages of development, and rarely asks whether shale development should proceed at all. 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, which are relevant due to the national and global implications of shale development (e.g. energy security, climate change).
Another common problem is varying levels of transparency and commitment to acting upon engagement feedback. Unfortunately ‘there is no guarantee that political decisions will follow the logic of processes […] however well designed and executed’: a public engagement can be exemplary, and yield excellent results, but this does not mean that the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ corresponding decisions will be made (Wheeler et al., 2015, p. 306). We therefore stress that, alongside well-designed and executed engagement, there must be an unwavering commitment from decision makers to follow truthfully (or at very least respond to) the recommendations that emerge from these exercises.
What is limiting engagement processes, and what can be done to ensure more effective engagement for all concerned? As discussed in our introduction, engaging the public and other stakeholders with shale development is difficult due to many factors including inequitable impacts, scientific uncertainty and mistrust of industry and government. Furthermore, the elements of best practice are intertwined such that poor practice in one element may impact another (e.g. choosing inappropriate methods may lead to recruiting biased samples of participants).
We might add to this issues of socio-technical lock-in/path dependency (Arthur, 1989) and motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990), which may render organisers reluctant to ask whether shale development should go ahead at all, and disinclined to act upon recommendations that suggest it should not. In many cases, best practices are hampered by resource constraints (notably for very small companies and lone activists) and restrictions upon following recommendations (as in the cases of Denton Drilling Awareness Group and the Boulder County engagement). Further research could therefore explore the extent to which such constraints affect engagement, and how to address them so best practice can be adopted more widely in future.
While our findings are broadly applicable to engagement activities more generally, there are of course important differences between US and Canadian shale development and that occurring elsewhere. Not least, different levels of economic benefit (e.g. local vs national) as well as differences in mineral rights ownership, geology, population distribution, and regulatory contexts may all impact perceptions and engagement strategies, rendering engagement challenging across multiple contexts. Indeed, the available literature shows a heterogeneous engagement landscape abroad as here, and it seems that the capacity and appetite for engagement varies considerably within and between countries (e.g. Lis and Stankiewicz, 2017; Rivetti and Cavatorta, 2018; Scottish Government, 2017).
On account of inevitable heterogeneities amongst national and local contexts, we reiterate the importance of considering circumstance when designing and interpreting engagement campaigns while resource extraction from shale deposits continues to grow (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2017, 2018).
This work was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 640715. We thank two anonymous reviewers and the Special Issue Editor Darrick Evensen for insightful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.
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1 We use the term ‘engagement’ to describe the ways in which industry, public and other actors interact with each other.
2 For clarity, we use the term ‘publics’ to refer to a traditional conceptualisation of the ‘general public’, and ‘stakeholders’ to refer to those with a particular interest or concern in shale development, such as landowners, regulators etc. We recognise that publics are also stakeholders, and that these categories are somewhat arbitrary; however, some distinction is useful when considering engagement amongst different parties.
E-mail address: [email protected]ﬀ.ac.uk (M. Thomas).
We use the term ‘engagement’ to describe the ways in which industry, public and other actors interact with each other.
2214-790X/ © 2018 The Authors. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/BY/4.0/).