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Is This Shale’s Power-to-the-People Moment?

Just as shale is becoming part of the everyday global energy conversation, surveys show the public is increasingly wary of the controversial drilling practice behind the phenomenon.

And it's activism that's swaying opinions.

The American public is a fickle bunch. A May 5 review of census information from the Pew Research Center found that at least 10 million people checked different boxes in 2010 than they had previously when asked to describe their racial identity.

In March, Pew asked people's opinions about hydraulic fracturing, the controversial drilling practice known as fracking. More people expressed support for fracking than not, but this year, the nays beat out the yeas.

Public opinion is also turning against shale across the pond, in Britain. Last year, the tiny village of Balcombe was the site of widespread protests against an exploration campaign by shale explorer Caudrilla Resources. Natalie Hynde (the daughter of Kinks founder Ray Davies and Pretenders front woman Chrissie Hynde), gained international attention when she super-glued herself to a fellow protester to draw attention to the controversy.

In November, Caudrilla said it won't carry out the controversial drilling practice at the site "now or in the future." While it did admit to using a drilling solution containing corrosive hydrochloric acid, it said it was diluted enough to be classified as non-hazardous.

Chemicals aren't the only concern. In 2011, tremors were reportedly tied to a Caudrilla drilling site in Lancashire and, back in the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey said it, too, was seeing an increase in seismic activity near shale plays in Oklahoma that can't be attributed to random chance.

Now Caudrilla wants to venture back into the Lanchashire shale. And super-glued or not, the Balcombe protests opened the floodgates to widespread opposition to fracking.

Related Article: Should India Dive into the Shale Boom?

Sarah O'Hara, a university professor who organized a survey for the University of Nottingham, told the BBC that less than half the people polled expressed support for fracking, the lowest number since surveys began two years ago.

"It's clear from the trend in polling that it's the protests in Balcombe that have swung opinion," she said.

The anti-shale movement is happening against the backdrop of the British government's efforts to wean the country off natural gas imports, an issue of growing concern for a European community wary of Russia's grip on the region's energy sector.

Among the American public, Pew finds mixed results in terms of who knows what about the shale phenomenon. Most people in the U.S. see gas mileage as the top energy issue. Less than half know that U.S. oil and gas production has increased, even though it has hit record levels not seen since the 1970s.

Still, according to the U.S. Energy Department, the price for gas used for home heating has hit a four-year high. Some reports suggest the U.S. shale boom hasn't yet reached the pocketbooks of most Americans.

While shale is seen by some as the answer to everything from lower household bills to a more powerful foreign policy, public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic indicate it may be that a power-to-the-people moment has arrived in the new energy debate.

By Daniel J. Graeber




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