This public dialogue project engaged the public on issues relating to shale gas exploration and related developments. 71 members of the public engaged in workshops aimed at better understanding how to explain the process and what regulatory processes would inspire confidence.
Problems and Purpose
A dialogue process was developed to learn how people would want to be engaged if an unconventional gas and oil development, particularly shale gas, were proposed in their area, at what stage they would want to be engaged, and by whom.
The primary focus of the project was not to explore public attitudes towards the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) policy on unconventional gas and oil, but rather to help the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (OUGO) set its public engagement policy on unconventional gas and oil and to inform industry’s development of the community benefit package. It was also anticipated that there would be wider value to stakeholders (from both government and industry) in helping them to develop appropriate plans and materials for engaging the public.
The dialogue had a number of key objectives and research questions, as follows:
1) To understand how to engage the public most effectively in unconventional gas and oil developments in their area, including:
- what would a successful process of public engagement look like, and what should it avoid?;
- how it should work over time: at what stage/s in the process they would want to be engaged/communicated with, why and how?; and
- who are the most and least trusted sources of information, and why? Exploring the role of national and local information sources.
2) To understand how the public engages with issues around unconventional gas and oil, practically and cognitively (this includes reflecting the sources of information the public have used to date as well as exploring their preferences):
- using what channels (e.g. online information, face-to-face meetings);
- at what level of detail/complexity, including explanation of the science;
- with what perception of risks and the conditions/regulations needed to manage them now and during production in the future; and
- what differences there are between different groups/publics, e.g. in different parts of the country in these factors.
3) To identify any gaps where:
- further policy or materials are needed to help the public understand unconventional gas and oil; or
- the regulatory arrangements are less able to inspire public confidence, even where objectively robust, as this will be an important element of DECC’s consideration of the necessary regulatory regime, and how it is communicated, going forward into a potential production phase.
Background History and Context
The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil is a new office within the UK Government’s DECC which aims to promote the safe, responsible and environmentally sound recovery of the UK’s reserves of unconventional sources of gas and oil. Shale gas and oil, and coalbed methane are known as ‘unconventional’ because of the techniques required to extract them. While ‘conventional’ deposits of oil and gas, such as those in the North Sea, are found in permeable rock and can be easily extracted, shale gas is found onshore in impermeable (shale) rock and requires hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) to create fissures that allow the gas to flow. This exploratory technique involves injecting water and, usually, sand particles at high pressure to create fractures and keep them open, with small quantities of chemicals used to improve effectiveness.
Globally, the USA has been the site of most hydraulic fracturing to date. Little exploratory drilling has occurred in the UK’s shale deposits and it is not known how much gas or oil is commercially recoverable. The Government halted hydraulic fracturing operations in 2011 over concerns at seismic activity in Lancashire, which were attributed to Cuadrilla’s operations there. In 2012, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s review concluded that shale gas extraction could be managed safely in the UK if best practice in implementation and enforcement of regulatory safeguards was followed. Government approved the resumption of activity in December 2012.
There has been extensive and often polarised media coverage of shale gas development and representations of risk, with potential to influence public perceptions. Among the general population, awareness of unconventional gas and oil was low, but increased rapidly – in May 2014, 73.7% of a representative sample of respondents correctly identified shale gas from a list of real and imaginary fossil fuels, rising from 37.6% since March 2012. Of those who were aware of it, 49% supported it being allowed in the UK and 31% said it should not be allowed.
However, there are limitations to using traditional quantitative surveys to understand public attitudes towards complex or developing technologies, particularly at early stages of development. DECC identified a gap in understanding of how the public engage with issues around unconventional gas and oil, as well as the best approaches to public engagement in areas where shale gas was to be explored and may be developed. This public dialogue aimed to engage with these issues. 
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Total cost of the project: £122,172
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) commissioned the project. Sciencewise-ERC provided support and co-funding (£50,000). TNS-BMRB were commissioned to deliver the project. Icaro Consulting were commissioned to evaluate the project. The budget was £90,000 for the dialogue and £10,000 for the evaluation.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
DECC is the lead Department for development of shale gas and oil and other forms of unconventional production and is commissioning this public dialogue. They were responsible for project managing the research, coordinating and chairing the oversight group and steering group, and signing off materials throughout to ensure a robust quality assurance process.
Dialogue Delivery. TNS BMRB provides knowledge that helps Government, the private sector and the Third Sector plan and care for society.
Evaluation Contractor. Icaro Consulting is a strategic research consultancy specialising in the planning, development and delivery of sustainability 
Sciencewise-ERC is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives. It helps Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform policy making, involving science and technology issues.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Total public participants involved: 71
Stakeholders involved: 7 (review of stimulus material), 6 (oversight group members)
Experts involved: 2-4 DECC representatives in each event 
This group was chaired and coordinated by the DECC, and was responsible for providing input on where to find the best science and scientists; ensuring that the dialogue process was balanced and impartial; and acting as a sounding board for potential activities or decisions about the process or content. The Oversight Group members met four times over the lifetime of the project, and were from the following organisations:
- Local Government Association (LGA)
- United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG)
- DECC – Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil
- Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)
- University of Exeter
- Health and Safety Executive
- Planning Officers Society
- DECC – Customer Insight
- TNS BMRB (appointed contractor)
- Icaro (appointed evaluator)
The dialogues were undertaken in three areas of the UK – Northampton, Liverpool and Winchester – engaging a total of 71 people who attended both waves. The locations were chosen to provide a range of demographic, geological and licencing factors, covering areas that were both prospective and not currently thought to be prospective for shale gas and oil: 
- Northampton (25 people): where shale development is not likely as the area is not considered prospective (given results of the British Geological Survey);
- Winchester (22 people): where shale development may occur, pending a licence being granted and all necessary permissions;
- Liverpool (24 people): where shale development may occur, pending all necessary permissions being granted, where an operator had already obtained a licence. The sample was purposively selected to reflect the make-up of the local areas using quotas based on age, gender, socio-economic status and home ownership.
Methods and Tools Used
This dialogue consisted of a two-wave qualitative and deliberative methodology, used to help participants build knowledge around quite technical information on shale gas and oil and the regulatory arrangements in place, before focusing on public engagement.
The workshops involved presentations, and also made use of stimulus material developed by the oversight group, including talking heads videos, handouts, posters, flip charts, card sorts, and other team activities and tasks.
Analysis and Evaluation
All workshops were digitally recorded and transcribed. Notes were taken during workshops by moderators and observers, and any workshop materials produced or annotated by participants were kept and analysed. Analysis entailed a series of researcher brainstorms using notes and stimulus materials, followed by ‘matrix mapping’, an approach entailing entry of all summarised data into an analytical framework to allow systematic coding, sorting, and thematic analysis. 
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Wave 1 workshops took place on 8th (Northampton) and 15th (Winchester, Liverpool) February 2014, and Wave 2 workshops took place on 1st (Northampton) and 8th (Winchester, Liverpool) March 2014. All workshops lasted six hours. Three facilitators attended each event, hosting three groups per workshop. Venues provided a plenary space for all participants, and discussions moved between the plenary and breaking into group discussions of eight participants per facilitator. Northampton was not a pilot per se, but feedback from this session did allow for tweaks to be made to the approach and materials ahead of the events in Winchester and Liverpool.
The Oversight Group reviewed stimulus materials for both waves of the dialogue. To further ensure the information materials provided reflected a balance of views, TNS-BMRB consulted wider stakeholders to comment on the Wave 1 materials, and their comments were incorporated into the materials. TNS-BMRB also consulted Dr Jason Chilvers, Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia (School of Environmental Science) at several stages in the project, both in developing the stimulus materials and the analytical framework and findings.
The stimulus material took the form of printed hand outs to accompany the presentations and discussions, posters, flip charts, card sorts and team activities/tasks. It also included a ‘talking heads’ video with explanations about shale gas and oil given by scientists and geologists, and a series of audio clips from different stakeholders. OUGO sought to provide a balanced overview of information on shale gas and oil, and included a range of perspectives in the hand out materials (e.g. quotations from organisations ranging from Greenpeace to industry groups and trade bodies).
The events were moderated by TNS BMRB whereas presentations were delivered by DECC representatives. In addition, at Wave 1, there was a ‘talking heads’ video that involved a discussion about shale gas amongst geologists and other scientists; and at Wave 2, there were a series of audio clips to present the responses of different stakeholders / organisations to some pre-formulated ‘interview’ questions.
Participants found shale gas and oil was difficult to assess against their energy priorities of affordability (in terms of customer bills), sustainability (in terms of environmental impacts and long-term availability), and security for future energy decisions (in terms of guaranteed supply and self-sufficiency), particularly in the context of needing to explore it – but uncertainties were heavily weighted against it. With the exception of a number of participants who had heard of seismic activity in Lancashire or other phenomena attributed to fracking in the USA, initial awareness of risks associated with shale gas and oil was low.
As exploration for shale gas and oil is at an early stage in the UK, participants largely felt it to be ‘an unknown’. This drove unease and caused them to categorise it as higher risk and with less clear potential outcomes than other comparator risks (such as driving on the motorway). Furthermore, those predisposed to negative views about shale were most receptive to information on risks, benefits and regulation that confirmed their ideas – a form of confirmation bias.
Government’s commitment to shale development and that licences are granted at the start of the regulatory process, reduced confidence that decision-making bodies would be objective or have scope to make independent decisions, despite information suggesting otherwise.
Participants reacted to complexity within the subject, and questioned the public’s ability to engage over processes and governance frameworks perceived as complex.
The dialogue identified the following principles for any engagement process on shale gas:
- Proactivity: relevant bodies taking the lead on engagement, rather than waiting to be asked
- Framing engagement: directly addressing existing public concern to provide the rationale for shale, including issues of affordability, energy security, and sustainability
- Empowerment: using information throughout the process, supporting the public to influence decision-making, giving time for people to consider their views
- Transparency: being clear about what is known about shale gas and what is not; what the public can influence and what they cannot; as well as about operations, regulatory decisions and progress
- Accessibility: using a variety of channels and forums to make engagement as inclusive as possible, and explaining risks and impacts in terms of how local people might experience them (effect on daily life)
- Independence: providing unbiased, balanced information and offering an independently managed engagement process
- Accountability: providing clarity on the stringency of regulation and its enforcement .
The most trusted messengers were those most likely to have a clear understanding of the issues, and to be honest about them. Non-biased experts deemed most suitable for this role included academics, scientists, and regulatory bodies.
Level of detail
Given requisite time and support, participants engaged with the technical aspects of hydraulic fracturing, helped by images and videos of the drill and the well. They felt that information at the national level should thus be high level and easy to understand - “a layman’s guide” - whilst information during local engagement should be more in-depth. In general, comparisons to familiar, everyday concepts were more useful points of reference than statistics, when deemed relevant and accurate .
Three areas of public concern persisted throughout the dialogue, despite the existing regulatory framework. These include concerns about the independence of the various bodies involved, long-term accountability for operators, and the ability for the public to have a say .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The case study identifies the following general impacts on policy and policy makers .
The emerging findings have been used by DECC to develop public engagement and the design of local events around shale gas and oil.
The DECC team feels that they have learnt much from the process, especially the direct feedback from having attended the sessions in person. They have also shared their experiences of the project in various ways, including speaking at internal lunchtime seminars to feed back to colleagues in the Department about the use of dialogue approaches.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The case study identifies the following lessons from the dialogue process.
What worked well
The two-day structure for each dialogue workshop was important. Participants were, in most cases, starting from a low knowledge base about unconventional gas and oil so needed the time and space to process new information before giving an informed view.
The handouts were well received and, crucially, included perspectives from different organisations that gave an important sense of balance and objectivity.
Using small groups to discuss issues and raise questions between the presentations and plenary sessions was also effective.
An element that worked particularly well was during one of the final sessions in the second round of workshops where participantsfed back their co-created engagement plans in a plenary session involving DECC officials. Participants were very positive about the opportunity to feedback, and it was an important way of giving them confidence that their views were important and would have an impact on DECC.
What worked less well
The project timescale was a significant constraint that had a series of impacts. For example, it significantly hindered the ability of the Oversight Group to comment on the materials, which is regrettable given their expertise. However, the project, and the information and learning it has generated, was needed quickly to inform emerging policy and practice.
There were some practical difficulties in communicating the distinction between a debate about shale gas itself and the processes of engagement around shale gas. This led some participants, to think that Government had already decided in favour of shale gas exploration.
There was a demand among participants for more technical/ scientific input and for a greater range of speakers/perspectives. The use of video as a proxy was effective, but did not compensate for having experts in the room; while the audio clips added less value, in part because the audio quality in the rooms was not ideal.
There was also a desire among participants for more direct engagement with DECC representatives, rather than via the facilitators. While this was part of the design, so that all participants got the same information, there was scope for more interaction that could have benefitted the process and the dynamic between participants and observers.
 Sciencewise (2015) “Case Study: Public engagement in shale gas and oil developments”, July 2015
 Sciencewise (2015) “Public Engagement in shale gas and oil developments” (ONLINE) Avaliable at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20170110132533/http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/public-engagement-in-shale-gas-and-oil-developments
 Icaro (2015) “Evaluating the public dialogue process on shale gas and oil developments” February 2015
 TNS-BMRB (2014) “A report on findings from the public dialogue workshops” December 2014