Shaping the Shale Gas Narrative in Europe

Shaping the Shale Gas Narrative in Europe

Despite the groundswell of recent positive news about shale gas globally, the industry continues to have an image problem. Even the IEA’s recent special report “Are we entering a Golden Age of Gas ?” primarily included the question mark over perceived issues of gas having some trouble to gain public acceptance. Nowhere was the problem more evident than last month when both ExxonMobil and Chevron found themselves in the curious position of having to defend fracking to their own shareholders. The investor concern wasn’t from the usual fringe groups who buy a share to disrupt the AGM; 40% of Chevron and 28% of XOM shareholders voted for motions that sought greater transparency and mitigation of shale’s environmental impact.

The failure of even the US gas industry to communicate the great good news of shale to their own stakeholders and significant parts of the public, points to even greater problems internationally. The reality of course is that there are significant moves on openness and accountability among smaller companies. Similarly, advances in technology will make many of today’s concerns things of the past. However this message is often not getting through the media noise. North America may be several years ahead of anyone else in shale science, but it sometimes seems to be at the same point as Europe or South Africa in shale psychology.

It’s not for want of trying. For one example, Chesapeake has been bankrolling the American Clean Skies Foundation for several years, and a visit to the site shows the backing must be substantial. During my visits to the US it’s obvious that print, TV and billboard industries have been sharing the shale wealth. It’s a legitimate question to ask at service to whom? If ExxonMobil’s or Chevron’s own shareholders aren’t convinced of the safety, security and benefits of shale, what chance has the industry with the public at large?

Internationally, the issue becomes more complex. South Africa, with a quarter of citizens living on less than $1.25 per day as it sits on what the US EIA assesses as 485 Tcf of recoverable resource as it suffers power shortages should be a natural for shale. But Shell’s efforts in the Karoo region are the subject of an opposition lobbying effort. But it is in Europe, a key gas market, that opposition is growing as fast as the size of the resource assessments. Poland’s shale potential is well known, but there are several plays developing in almost every country in Europe.

I’ve been highlighting the sudden emergence and coming future permanence of shale to the press, policy makers and end-users for three years in the UK and Europe, longer indeed than many in the US. For most of the first two years I couldn’t get any interest. Unconventional gas simply wasn’t on the radar screen of conventional wisdom. Everyone knew that conventional natural gas was running out, that it was just another fossil fuel. Renewables, CCS and nuclear were supposed to be the future and besides the Russian have it all. Over the past year, suddenly, shale is going mainstream. This year even the UK Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Climate Change, in irony lost on them but not on myself, invited me to testify in public hearings. Against the conventional wisdom they published a report backing shale in May 2011.

But in France, a wide-ranging campaign united members of political parties across the spectrum in a campaign that threatened to ban extraction of a resource, also thought to be massive, that has yet to be even discovered. French antis run a campaign as emotional and unscientific as that of US shale detractors. Gasland’s Josh Fox is becoming as feted a cineaste among the French as Jerry Lewis used to be. Poison water, nasty chemicals, flaming faucets and all the rest are rolled out and in the absence of anyone pointing out the nonsense, the various national conversations in France and throughout Europe on shale are invariably preceded by the adjective “controversial”.

The situation in Europe is complicated since the conventional wisdom of European energy policy jumped on other bandwagons long ago. I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories, but I must quote US writer Upton Sinclair who said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.

For one example, the World Coal Council and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) admiringly quoted the recent Cornell report which proposed the carbon footprint of shale as bad or worse than coal. In a new found soft green mode, Gazprom continually highlights shale’s alleged environmental issues. Similarly, nuclear, Coal CCS and renewable economics are all disrupted by shale. Energy actors in Europe are not so much hostile as apathetic to shale – they are either actively in denial, or praying that someone will come up with an environmental smoking gun and make the problem go away.

That is not going to happen. The European narrative on shale, similar to North America’s, has been based on unscientific and out of context calls to emotion, not science. The generally uninformed public and media in Europe are unaware of how much opposition is based on facts not so much wrong as simply out of date. Europe is years away from large scale production and will be able to use world-class best practice on pad spacing, chemical and water use and a whole host of technologies only starting to emerge. Shale is moving so fast that looking at studies from 2008 as Gasland does is irrelevant.

In Europe, spreading the good news of shale should be a slam dunk. But even that tells us something: few Europeans would understand that expression and that’s in English. But the main message in any language needs to be: low carbon, low cost, proven technology under our own feet. What’s to hate?

Two key issues are associated with shale perceptions. One is that shale, in Europe as in Pennsylvania, Quebec or Ohio, is moving into areas completely unfamiliar with oil and gas exploration. It is very easy to make people afraid of the unknown. At the same time, many in the industry are equally unfamiliar in dealing with public fears and misperceptions. Just as there are small, but powerful, groups who live in the past and see oil companies as an evil cabal, a small number of energy companies hold that all government need do is to reduce regulation and lower taxes.

The reality is Europeans need European answers on shale gas. By that I mean they need to know how shale gas extraction is going to be in the future in their continent not in the past in someone else’s. That could be done via an expensive advertising campaign. But apart from the US experience casting some doubt on this strategy, we remain in early days of shale outside North America and it is most likely premature to launch big money campaigns.

My site, now live in three languages, aims to regain control of the narrative on shale gas. We hope to get support from energy players internationally. In an inter-connected world, bad news travels not only fast, but far as campaigns like Gasland’s shows. We’ve already had some success in the UK on regaining the shale conversation and will build on the enthusiasm countries like Poland feel for shale. We think what happens in Paris, France, can be good for people working in Paris, Texas. Just as European opponents refer to the New York State moratorium, many US shale opponents hail the French ban on fracking as vindication of their views. SGI supports shale as part of a logical program to reduce carbon and offers a green alternative to anti-shale propaganda – something that can only help the industry world-wide.

© 2013 Energy Tribune

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