The basis of rational, scientific judgement is evidence, and the framework for how that evidence is assessed and conclusions drawn.
The recent use of scientists to front the case for unconventional gas and oil in Britain is not based on clear, unequivocal evidence. Instead it relies upon the status of those making the claims to substantiate the arguably partial information presented. It is a process driven by a narrow, public relations focus rather than an open investigation of all available evidence.
What is often not stated as part of this process are the conflicting professional or institutional roles or interests of those involved, which create questions about bias. In the case of unconventional gas and oil it raises doubts as to the objectivity and reliability of the claims made.
There is no strong case proving the safety and reliability of ‘fracking’. Instead reference is made to uncertain or unproven mechanisms of ‘regulation’ or ‘best practice’ to remedy any potential problems which may arise. Current Government policy rests upon a set of ‘official’ positions about the safety or efficacy of unconventional gas and oil which were devised some two or three years ago. The validity of these positions, and the Government’s reliance upon certain academic reports to demonstrate their case, is also called into question by this recent body of research.
Reflecting the evidence now available, the best conclusion we can draw on the safety of unconventional gas and oil is that ‘we don’t know the full scope or extent of its impacts’. This was also the result of recent studies by public agencies in New York State and Quebec, as well in other previous studies carried out in other areas where these processes are already under development.
The use of ‘scientists’ to represent the Government and industry case, and the reports they have produced to justify Government policy, raise questions of official bias within the use of science-based evidence. This is highlighted in the six case studies chosen for review in this report:
♦ The Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas (Case Study 1) is a questionable use of public funding for scientific research. We cannot safely produce the majority of the fossil fuels we know to exist today due to the impacts this would have on the climate. Given the inertia within academia, and the fact that decisions on resource allocation today may result in long-standing commitments to research in certain fields rather than others, it is questionable whether NERC can justify supporting research which champions the discovery and extraction of fossil fuels. Other fields of research are arguably more deserving of this funding to meet future energy and environmental challenges.
♦ The Government’s use of science in support of their policy on shale gas (Case Study 2) raises questions about objectivity in the consideration of evidence. Much of the Government’s case relies on statements which, in light of recent research on the environmental impacts of unconventional gas and oil, are arguably unsound. The fact that these studies all tend to put emphasis on best practice and regulation, without first demonstrating that existing impacts are the result of failures in regulation or practice, also raises questions about their validity.
♦ Of these various reports, the one which stands out is the Mackay-Stone report on the climate impacts of shale gas (Case Study 3). This reports uses arguably unrepresentative data to construct a case for the climate-friendly status of shale gas. In fact, given the range of data available, no such claims can be made. Arguably the impacts are much higher than that stated in the report, and quoted by Government ministers and public figures on numerous occasions since its publication.
♦ The use of these and other statements by scientists, in support of unconventional gas and oil, is further complicated by groups such as the Science Media Centre (Case Study 4). They were set up to ‘promote’ science amongst the public. And yet, when we review the statements they circulate to the media, we find that they are not an accurate appraisal of the available evidence. They create a false certainty about the safety of these processes, and thus mislead the public about the impacts that may result if development took place in Britain.
♦ As a specific example of this use of scientists to mislead public opinion, the Guardian letter (Case Study 5) is a prime example. It is a letter which makes largely economic, not geophysical, claims about shale gas extraction in Lancashire. What is more, the points made in the letter can be shown to be inaccurate or exaggerations of the statistical evidence available. However, through referencing to the positions of the academics who were (whether knowingly or unknowingly) signatories to this letter, the result is that the objective case for unconventional gas and oil is being deliberately misrepresented to the public.
♦ Finally, we can see the planned, deliberate nature of this deception if we look at the public relations industry’s past history of ‘grassroots advocacy’ – and its creation of groups to advance the case for certain developments as part of that advocacy process, so called ‘astroturf’ groups. If we look at recent events in Canada and the USA, and in particular the role of public relations companies such as Edelman, the recently formed Task Force on Shale Gas (Case Study 6) is arguably a front to pass-off the industry’s case for unconventional gas and oil development in Britain. Not only have the members of the Task Force previously expressed positions in support of shale gas development, the organisation behind the Task Force is similar to that of other industry-dominated groups – such as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil. As a result the Task Force cannot be considered to be an independent and impartial organisation to represent the public interest.
Over recent years a term has arisen to describe the use of scientists to advance a favourable case for unconventional gas and oil – “frackademics”. What this denotes is not simply the use of spurious claims of scientists to mislead the public. It is also emblematic the acceptance of industry or government financial support for academic institutes who provide the technical credibility for controversial policies. Thus it is not just the content of what is being said that is relevant, but also the context in which/by whom it is being spoken.
We have, from student loans to the part privatisation of our leading science laboratories, a crisis in science funding in Britain. This creates doubt as to the impartiality and objectivity of the information these agencies produce as it introduces a need to represent their clients interests. This doubt has been exacerbated by the Government use of partisan evidence and reports in their promotion of policy. As funding pressures grow, and industries who wish to advance certain special interests come in to fill the gap, we have to ask whether the public can fully trust the use of scientists or scientific evidence in the media.
There is no objective case to support the development of unconventional gas and oil in Britain. At best, reviewing evidence from studies from around the world, what we can say is that there is a great deal of uncertainty as to the scope and severity of impacts from these processes. Therefore the use of scientists by Government and industry to promote a positive view of these technologies is misleading, since in nearly all cases that uncertainty is not being represented to the public. This risks further diminishing the public’s trust in science, as it is increasingly being used to support developments which arguably have an uncertain – but likely negative – impact upon the public’s interests.
Case study 1: University funding and NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas
Case study 2: Academic involvement in major shale gas studies
Case study 3: The Mackay-Stone shale gas climate impacts study
Case study 4: The Science Media Centre and the ‘seeding’ of articles
Case study 5: Guardian ‘open letter’ from academics
Case study 6: The interrelationship between the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil and The Task Force on Shale Gas
Appendix: Information sources for case study diagrams
This report has been commissioned by Talk Fracking
Produced February 2015 by Paul Mobbs Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
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© 2015 Paul Mobbs/Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
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All Internet links listed in this report were accessed during late January/early February 2015.