Fracking is a controversial issue right across the UK and deeply held, sincere views are held on all sides of the debate. This makes it difficult for decision-makers to find publically acceptable solutions.
Responding to this challenge, in January 2015 the Scottish Government put in place a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas development, preventing hydraulic fracturing for shale oil and gas and coal bed methane extraction (i.e. fracking) taking place in Scotland until they had investigated evidence of potential economic, environmental and social impacts.
In January 2017, alongside the publication of the results of this independent research, the Scottish Government launched a wide-ranging consultation process. In launching it Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse said “The Scottish Government has a very important decision to make in determining the future of unconventional oil and gas… [this] consultation does not set out or advocate a preferred Scottish Government position or policy. Instead, we want to create space for dialogue and allow different perspectives to come forward” in order to give the public the chance to influence the government’s decision.
This emphasis on developing dialogue within and between communities was important in shaping the way the whole consultation process was framed. Central to this was a focus on asking not simply whether the public supported or opposed fracking, but trying to help ministers better understand the reasons behind people’s opinions and what information has led them to that position; their drivers, values and understandings.
What we did
Following the publication of our Participation Commitment Report, the Scottish Government committed to ensuring that the consultation on fracking was as open and accessible as possible to people, communities, businesses and interest groups from across Scotland. For this reason, unlike most standard government consultations they developed a dedicated Talking 'Fracking’ website which:
- Presented clear information about the purpose of the consultation;
- Positioned opportunities for unconventional oil and gas development within the context of wider energy needs and Scotland’s energy strategy;
- Provided accessible summaries of the research they had commissioned about the potential impacts of fracking (alongside the full technical reports);
- Contained an FAQ section;
- Offered community groups a discussion pack to support them to host local workshops in a way that could feed directly into the consultation process… and that is where we came in!
Involve was commissioned to develop a practical, user-friendly discussion pack that distributed groups could use to host conversations within their communities based on the impartial information. The purpose was to facilitate opportunities for learning and dialogue on the issues in a constructive and democratic way. It was also intended to provide a way of ensuring that the opinions of people and communities less likely to engage with a formal consultation document would have a way to be heard.
Targeted towards community councils, tenants groups and local campaign organisations, but able to be used by any type and size of group, the ‘Talk about it’ discussion pack contained:
- A meeting plan for hosting a structured discussion on whether fracking should take place in Scotland;
- A slide pack that presents key information about unconventional oil and gas and the findings from the independent research commissioned by the Scottish Government (including notes for the presenter)
- Hand-outs providing additional information to support participants’ discussions
- Guidance on planning, managing and recording the outcomes of the discussions.
The pack was available to download from the Talking Fracking website or interested groups could request a printed copy be sent to them. Within the first few weeks of the consultation period, almost 50 printed packs were requested by groups across Scotland.
What was achieved
The Talking Fracking consultation as a whole received 60,535 valid responses: the second largest response to a Scottish Government consultation. Of these responses, 52,110 (86%) were campaign responses or petitions; and 8,425 (14%) took the form of substantive responses – i.e. responses drafted by respondents using their own words, or non-standard campaign responses. This is a proportionally high number of non-standard responses and demonstrates wide-ranging engagement with the consultation. In making his report to Parliament Paul Wheelhouse Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy stated that the high levels of engagement with the consultation were “a clear validation of our participative approach.”
Substantive responses were submitted by 8,239 individuals and 186 organisations/groups. Among the latter, one-third were from community councils and other community groups. Nearly two-thirds of these respondents gave a post-code within local authority areas identified as potentially having significant shale oil and gas reserves or coal bed methane. While the number of responses submitted via the dedicated ‘Talk about it’ portal was lower than expected feedback from community groups who requested the pack shows that, following hosting a discussion, they encouraged participants to submit individual responses instead.
Overall, approximately 99% of the responses received opposed fracking, and fewer than 1% were in favour, but it was emphasised throughout that ministerial decision making would not be led simply on the results of an opinion poll. In his statement to Parliament on the 3rd October 2017 the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy however finally concluded that:
“Having considered this matter in considerable detail, it is [the government’s] view that the outcome of our public engagement shows that in those communities which would be most affected, there is no social licence for unconventional oil and gas to be taken forward at this time, and the research we have conducted does not provide a strong enough basis from which to adequately address those communities' concerns…. taking all of this into account and balancing the interests of the environment, our economy, public health and public opinion, I can confirm that the conclusion of the Scottish Government is that we will not support the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland.”
To find out more about the Distributed Dialogue method click here.