Partner,  Ewan  Robertson  looks  at  the role of the media and public opinion in the debate over unconventional gas – a genuine alternative to fossil fuels - and its impact on achieving a safe, well regulated and monitored industry which has the trust of the community at large.

Much has been made of the huge potential for shale gas and coal seam gas (CSG) across the world following the huge finds currently being exploited in the US. The governments of many countries including the UK and Australia are focussing on shale gas and other unconventional gas such as CSG to provide a bona fide alternative to conventional fossil fuels to meet the ever increasing global and national demand for energy.

However, as NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, Professor Mary O’Kane highlighted in the report of her recent independent review, CSG is a complex and multi-layered issue which has proven divisive chiefly because of the emotive nature of community concerns, the competing interests of the players, and a lack of publicly-available factual information. In the UK there has been onshore fracture stimulation since the 1980’s. Despite this, the print media run regular articles about fracture stimulation and there have been high profile campaigns and often violent protests across a number of sites including Balcombe, Barton Moss and ASX listed Dart Energy’s sites at Farndon and elsewhere.

In the US, the #WhatTheFrack campaign against fracture stimulation is growing and is backed by high profile celebrity endorsements. The process is already banned in Vermont and parts of many other states such as New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. There are calls for moratoriums in California, Colorado and elsewhere. Fraccing is also banned outright in France with a de facto moratorium currently in place in Germany.

Both Gasland 2, which is about to be released, and 2010’s Gasland, are highly watchable documentaries focusing on unconventional gas in the US that have received critical acclaim but have also come under attack for being wildly inaccurate and irresponsible.

Whilst fracture stimulation has been carried out in Australia for well over 40 years, it has been typically far away from population centres and, as such, out of the public eye. However, the increasing globalisation of the media and proliferation of social media means that the process is now very much an issue for the general population with parliamentary enquiries happening in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and the National Party in Tasmania also pushing for an enquiry. These sit alongside the moratorium in Victoria which has been extended through to 2015 and the restrictions on CSG activities in New South Wales.

According to many, including NSW Resources Minister Chris Hartcher, despite its efforts to date the industry in Australia has so far failed to gain a social licence to operate. Indeed, the extension to the Victorian moratorium was announced around the same time in November 2013 as the Reith Report into the Victorian gas market actually called for the ban to be lifted. It is interesting to speculate how much public sentiment played in this decision given the make up of the Victorian parliament and high profile campaigns such as that by Coal and Gas Free Victoria.

The media presence and brand awareness of organisations such as Greenpeace show the power that environmental and political activism can wield, particularly in the younger, more activist generation which reacts so quickly and vociferously to social media posts. Indeed recent research from the University of Edinburgh and Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has shown that the speed, volume and ease with which information is shared through social networking sites may, in fact, be interfering with people’s ability to think and analyse information before reacting. This is not going to change.

Given the controversial nature of unconventional gas and its many divisive issues, it seems more than likely that the ‘anti-fraccing’ lobby will continue to grow in Australia and become ever more vocal. Therefore, if Australia is to have any chance of really benefiting from an unconventional gas boom in the long term, environmental and other risks and concerns must continue to be properly and scientifically researched and evaluated. Equally important however will be the response of the industry to those opposing unconventional gas. Environmental activism will not go away. The industry must accept this and continue to put its message across in an open and transparent way.

Ultimately, the future of unconventional gas in Australia will be decided by politicians, and politicians need to be elected by popular support. The battle for hearts and minds should not be won by the loudest voice but by the voice of science and reason. It would be unfortunate to say the least if unconventional gas was blocked in Australia through unfounded environmental activism and hyperbole. Of course, our readers are not the ones who need to be convinced of this.