On Thursday 27th March, the Public Engagement Unit was involved in supporting a public lecture held by Professor Kathryn Brasier, from Pennsylvania State University. The lecture was part of UCLan’s Distinguished Visitor Programme which makes funds available to bring eminent people in their field over to UCLan. Professor Brasier’s lecture was entitled ‘Community and Economic Impacts of Shale Energy Development in the US: Research Summary and Considerations for the UK’ and was supported by UCLan’s Centre for Sustainable Development and Professor Joe Howe.
Obviously shale energy development is a big topic for the UK at the moment and especially for residents of Lancashire, as it is here (specifically around the Fylde coast) that some of the first shale energy development is being conducted. Commonly known as ‘Fracking’, this is a process that uses hydraulic pressure to horizontally fracture shale to release that natural gas that is held within it.
Last week, David Cameron was quoted as saying that the development of unconventional gas is good for the UK (paraphrased), but it is clear that there are many people that disagree with this. And there also seems to be a further large sector of the community that doesn’t really know what to think either way (myself included). It was on this point that Prof Howe (in his introduction of the lecture) called for an increase in research funding to enable further investigation into the impacts of shale energy development (‘fracking’), especially looking at the impact on local communities.
Professor Brasier introduced herself as a sociologist, whose research involved looking at how the developed shale energy industry in the US (especially around Pennsylvania, where the industry has been underway for some years) had affected communities in these areas. The point of the lecture was to look at how things had worked in the US, to see if we could then take considerations for how the industry could/would affect communities in the UK.
Specific points that Professor Brasier made included issues apart from those of the actual process of ‘fracking’ i.e. the approximately 2 week process of fracturing the shale the release the gas. She presented images of what the extraction sites actually looked like, with numerous large water tanks and massed heavy machinery and looked at how this had affected the local community e.g. the effect of heavy machinery on local roads and infrastructure.
Issues were also raised about how the local communities changed such as;
- the effect of an influx of workers
- increased locals jobs
- the development of local commercial ‘hubs’, with ‘spokes’ out to the gas extraction sites
- the juxtaposition between ‘shaleionaires’ (those who had sold the mineral rights of their land) and local unskilled workers
- local inflation
- the effect on local housing
There are also many concerns, both here and in the US, about the environmental impacts of the shale energy development industry, and it seems that this is something that hasn’t been fully researched. Professor Brasier’s work highlighted that in Pennsylvania the community feeling about the industry on the whole seemed to be a hope for better jobs juxtaposed with a concern about the natural environment and water quality; “This could be a good thing, if it’s done right”
The conclusion of Professor Brasier’s lecture called for an onus on public and community engagement within these shale energy development areas. The communities often had issues of trust with both the government and with the shale energy development companies, and that these issues arise long before the gas does. There also seems to be a lack of understanding of the process and that this is causing there to be a ‘rumour mill’ around the issue, with people seeming to be crying out for more information, but also to be involved in the production and dissemination of this information. Rather than simply preaching facts at the public, there is a requirement to truly engage with them. This does not necessarily mean formal consultation, nor does it necessarily mean protest. It’s about engaging with the public and community from the outset, as after the event the trust is gone, and finding new ways in which to involve and engage.
As the Public Engagement Unit at the University of Central Lancashire, this is something that we are committed to being part of.