Does the UK public support fracking? Opinion polls explained as Government lifts ban on shale gas extraction
The Government regularly asks the public what they think about fracking - and is lifting the ban despite clear opposition.
Fracking will be allowed in England again after Prime Minister Liz Truss’ government announced a controversial U-turn to reverse a ban imposed in 2019.
New business and energy secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said in a statement on Thursday (22 September) that he was lifting England’s “pause” on shale gas extraction – otherwise known as fracking – to strengthen the UK’s energy security.
The process involves drilling into the Earth and injecting a water, sand and chemical mix at high pressure to fracture the rock and release natural gas. It has proved controversial in the UK due to its association with minor earthquakes, and risk of polluting water supplies with the chemicals used.
The Conservative Party had pledged not to allow fracking in its manifesto at the 2019 election, and the U-turn comes despite pronounced opposition to fracking among the UK public. That is according to the Government’s own polling on the issue, which it has been carrying out since 2014.
So what does the public think of fracking – and is there support for bringing it back?
How many people support fracking?
In Autumn 2021, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) concluded that “opposition to fracking clearly outweighed support”. This was the last time its periodic public opinion survey on energy sources asked about fracking, despite three more editions being published since then.
Of the thousands of UK adults (aged 16 and over) surveyed, 22% said they strongly opposed fracking while 22% said they simply opposed it. Only 4% of people were strongly in favour, with another 13% saying they supported it.
The figures pre-date the worst of the UK energy crisis, which has seen astronomical growth in gas and electricity bills for households and businesses. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been blamed in large parts for pushing prices up, with many countries heavily reliant on Russian gas exports.
But more recent data from YouGov shows the cost of living crisis has not led to a significant softening in the public’s opposition to fracking.
Their data shows support for fracking rose and opposition fell in the early part of the cost of living crisis. In December 2021, 55% of people said fracking should not go ahead while 19% said it should. By May 2022, that had changed to 46% in favour and 27% opposed.
But since then the shift has levelled off, despite the worsening energy crisis, with support (28%) still 19 percentage points behind opposition (47%) in September 2022, prior to the Government’s announcement.
How has public opinion changed over time?
The Government withdrew its support for fracking in November 2019, after new scientific analysis by the Oil and Gas Authority found the technology did not exist to allow accurate predictions about the likelihood or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations.
In the months following the decision, there was a rise in the proportion of people supporting fracking, according to the BEIS opinion tracker, from 11% in December 2019 to a peak of 25% in December 2020. The proportion opposing fracking fell from 41% to 34% over the same time.
However, this trend may not have been due to people switching from one camp to another, but more people coming to an opinion in the face of increased publicity and controversy. The data shows the proportion of people who had no opinion fell from 45% to 30% between December 2019 and December 2020.
How aware are people about fracking?
A separate question, asking whether respondents had any knowledge of fracking, also shows increasing awareness among the public. In December 2019, 22% of people said they had never heard of fracking. That fell to 12% in December 2020, although rose slightly to 13% in Autumn 2021.
However, much of this movement may have been accounted for by a rise in people saying they were aware of fracking but did not really know what it was, rather than those who said they knew a little or a lot about it.
As of Autumn 2021, 8% of the public said they knew a lot about fracking, 30% a fair amount (a new answer, added in this survey) and 35% a little amount. A further 14% said they knew hardly anything, but had heard of the practice.
Why has the fracking ban been reversed?
In his Statement, Mr Rees-Mogg said the move to lift the ban on fracking in England was necessary to strengthen the UK’s energy security in light of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and “weaponisation of energy”. He set out an ambition for the UK to become a net energy exporter by 2040.
“To get there we will need to explore all avenues available to us through solar, wind, oil and gas production – so it’s right that we’ve lifted the pause to realise any potential sources of domestic gas,” he said.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged not to allow fracking in England unless the science proved categorically that it could be done safely.
The announcement on fracking came as a government-commissioned study by the British Geological Survey was published, conclusion that forecasting earthquakes still remains a scientific challenge. Allowing more drilling to go ahead will mean more data can be gathered about fracking’s safety, the government announcement said.