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Polarised representation of coalbed methane in the media

World Coal,

An Independent Expert and Scientific Panel (IESP), convened by the Scottish Government to report on the scientific evidence relating to unconventional oil and gas, has noted that media representation of coalbed methane (CBM) developments is often polarised.

The report stresses that there is a severe lack of balanced, well-informed information available to the general public, and that data and opinions on the extraction of CBM from Scottish coal seams is often cherry picked by groups and individuals on both sides of the CBM debate.

Activists and eco-groups are cited in the report as being misinformed, spreading information that is factually inaccurate. The authors noted that a number of local communities drew information from unsubstantiated claims made by activist groups, such as Frackfree Scotland, Frack Off Scotland, and Frack Free Forth Valley, as well as Concerned Communities of Falkirk, Canonbie Residents against Coal and Friends of Earth Scotland.

For example, “contrary to many protestors’ concerns, the hydrocarbon exploration being proposed at Balcombe was not for shale gas and would not have involved hydraulic fracturing.”

The report also noted that fears often spread by activist campaign groups over the effect CBM development may have on groundwater could be unfounded.

Public concerns

Yet the authors stress how vital it is that the general public is given assurances over many concerns that are not just questions of safety, including questions around trust in, and the motives of, policy makers and operators, human-environmental ethics and social justice.

It is understandable that there is confusion and uncertainty among the general public and there is an urgent need to understand and address the genuine concerns that communities have about unconventional gas. The report noted that: “Confusion has been expressed about the regulatory framework and a lack of confidence in the regulatory regime. Commonly expressed concerns include:

  • Environmental concerns (water contamination, air pollution, naturally occurring radioactive substances).
  • Water consumption.
  • Induced seismicity (almost uniquely in the UK).
  • Effects of a new fossil fuel resource on climate change targets.
  • Reconciling investment in unconventional gas with investment in renewable energy.
  • Social impacts (e.g. social impact of staffing accommodation, truck movements, noise, visual impact).
  • Health concerns (for example, exposure to carcinogens or air pollutants).
  • Industrialisation of rural landscapes and effect on food production.
  • Corporate and government power and trust.
  • Community disempowerment (e.g. lack of consultation, uninvited respondents to public demonstrations).

The report also discusses, in depth, its analysis of societal and environmental impacts of CBM development. It’s key findings in this respect are that existing stringent regulations could well ensure safe extraction of unconventional gas, while clearer and more balanced information must be distributed on a wider scale than at present, in order to inform and educate those people on all sides of the unconventional gas debate.

“It should be noted that the existence of a potential problem does not mean that it will occur. There are numerous regulations and assessments in place to reduce or eliminate adverse occurrences,” IESP authors state. They add, “polarised views [in the media] often result in the “cherry picking” of data and anecdotal evidence to support either position making it a harder proposition to use the wider body of robust evidence to have a balanced debate on the subject. Arguably, this only leads to further confusion among the public.”

Vital public engagement

According to Jaspal and Nerlich (2014), media representation of the debate over CBM and other unconventional resources can be defined broadly into two camps. There is a body of media that focuses on the negative environmental and health effects of unconventional gas, and which places the burden of proof on operators and policymakers/regulators to proceed safely (the precautionary principle). A second body of media focuses on the potential of unconventional gas to increase the indigenous (UK) energy resource, lower prices and create jobs, and which emphasises that gas is a greener supplier of baseload electricity than coal. As the report notes, “the latter point of view emphasises that, as long as best practice is implemented, the best way to exploit these resources is ‘learning by doing’”.

Such polarised views often result in the “cherry picking” of data and anecdotal evidence to support either position, according to the report. This makes it a harder proposition to use the wider body of robust evidence to have a balanced debate on the subject. Arguably, this only leads to further confusion among the public.

As evidence mounts in support of drawing gas from coal seams in Scotland, the IESP report stresses how vital it is that companies, scientists, engineers and politicians engage with the public over the development of the fledgling UK CBM industry. The report noted: “Public engagement is necessary for the development of unconventional oil and gas resources in Scotland and there is a growing body of evidence showing that sustained and meaningful community engagement has beneficial outcomes for communities, operators and policy makers.”


JASPAL, R., and NERLICH, R., “Fracking in the UK Press: Threat Dynamics In An Unfolding Debate” (Public Understanding Of Science, 2014). 

Written by Sam Dodson

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