Gas industry needs to rethink its media approach

Fracking for natural gas does not enjoy good press: 53 per cent of Americans oppose it, only slightly better than the 57 per cent who are against despised coal-mining. The United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party has pledged to ban fracking in the (unlikely) event it wins power. The industry is delivering more gas at lower prices than ever before, but it is losing the battle for public opinion. And it does not seem to care.

In newspaper articles and at industry conferences, gas companies makes their case in fact-heavy, logical presentations. On television, in pursuit of media “balance”, an impassioned environmentalist or concerned local resident is interviewed alongside a grey-suited, earnest corporate executive.

The gas industry has a great story to tell. Largely because of hydraulically fracturing shale rocks, North American production has boomed and consumers have enjoyed a windfall from sustained low prices. US exports of liquefied natural gas are now turning up around the world, including in Dubai, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt.

As the UK’s own gas production runs down, it has stepped up imports. In September, the chemicals firm Ineos received a shipment of US ethane – probably mostly derived from shale gas – at its Grangemouth industrial centre in Scotland. According to Ineos, Grangemouth generates 3 per cent of Scotland’s GDP and employs 1,300 people. Last week, the UK firm Cuadrilla was given permission to hydraulically fracture four wells in Lancashire in the north of England.

Gas, clean and highly efficient, is far better for the environment than coal – its main competitor. It does not displace renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, but works alongside them. Local environmental impacts of shale gas extraction can be managed with careful regulation and responsible operatorship.

These facts, enshrined in dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers and independent reports, have failed – and will continue to fail – to convince shale gas opponents. Hardline environmentalists and climate change deniers shout at each other over the heads of the moderate majority, vulnerable to emotive fearmongering.

The US gas companies have not helped themselves. They have failed to call out a few cowboy operators who tarnished the shale business in its early days. Reflexively fighting any regulation, even reasonable ones, they create the impression of having something to hide.

The gas companies and their home states, such as Texas and Oklahoma, are strong backers of Donald Trump. But his energy “policy” – inasmuch as any coherent programme emerges from a mishmash of campaign asides – would promote coal, in practice at the expense of gas. This approach will not win much sympathy from a likely president Hillary Clinton.

Instead, gas companies could rebuild a coalition with moderate environmental groups, as between 2007 and 2010 when Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest shale drillers, donated to the Sierra Club. But this has to avoid “greenwashing” and undue corporate influence.

Demonstrating carbon capture on gas-fired power would undercut the argument that shale gas is incompatible with long-term action on climate change.

Russia has sought to protect its own gas exports by backing eastern European anti-shale groups, and has sought a rapprochement with the US Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. National security hawks appreciate that lower European dependence on Russian gas is a good thing.

Local communities should benefit from economic development and jobs, as Ineos has stressed for Grangemouth. As shale gas operations proceed, tax revenue and employment arrive, and negative impacts are seen to be minor, future projects may go ahead more smoothly. The GMB Union, the third-largest donor to the UK Labour Party, praised the government’s decision on Cuadrilla as “pragmatic” and said Labour’s proposed ban was “madness” and “nonsense”.

Madness and nonsense it may be, but the gas industry is winning the argument too slowly to be a commercial and environmental success. It needs a radical change in its media, public and political outreach to make its case on both sides of the Atlantic.

Robin Mills is the chief executive of Qamar Energy and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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