How to Garner Public Support for Unconventional Gas Exploration
Although unconventional gas exploration, relatively speaking, is a new industry, the development of commercially viable unconventional gas exploration technology has a long and extensive history. The most common form of unconventional gas exploration is hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting pressurized liquid composed of roughly 99 percent water and 1 percent chemicals into a well in order to propagate fractures in rock.
This releases natural gas that can then be captured and harnessed. In recent years, it has quickly emerged as one of the fastest growing and most polarizing industries, both nationally and globally. It has been successfully employed in numerous countries such as the United Kingdom, China, New Zealand, Poland, Canada, and even parts of the United States because of its ability to successfully increase productivity from wells. And yet, it seems like no other industry can illicit such strong and active responses from both supporters and opposition groups. But why exactly is unconventional gas exploration so controversial?
Industrial use of fracking started as early as 1903, but was first introduced commercially in America in 1947. The fracking technology implemented today is based on technological innovations made in the late twentieth century. Due to these technological developments and the ability of Hydraulic Fracturing to successfully increase productivity from wells, it has been adopted by thousands of oil and natural gas wells worldwide. Since the late 1970s, national, state, and local agencies have been studying the environmental and economic implications of employing hydraulic fracturing. While fracking is relatively speaking, new, it has been implemented in the Barnett Shale since 1991. It is also one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, growing forty-five percent in the last five years. One of the consequences of such rapid growth, as in other industries such as solar or wind power, is a strong public response, particularly of public opposition.
Opposition groups frequently raise concerns about radioactivity of groundwater drawn from wells, and the air pollution that could be caused from chemicals coming to the surface. In many instances, across the entire country, this type of public opposition has at one point or another caused bans, moratoriums, and costly delays to unconventional gas exploration developments. With the proper grassroots campaign, unconventional gas exploration developments can disseminate the correct facts about unconventional gas exploration to the public. For example, several studies dating back as far as 2004 by state and local government and environmental officials have shown that hydraulic fracturing has had no effect on public water supplies. In addition, relatively speaking, fracking has the potential to turn power plants away from coal to much cleaner burning natural gas, which could actually improve air quality. If that weren’t enough, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed rules placing restrictions on releases of methane from wells.
Although it may seem daunting, with a little knowledge and persistence, launching an effective grassroots campaign can be a matter of applying a few tried and true tactics:
- Identify your supporters by town, county, legislative, and congressional district using social media, direct mail, and political style phone banking. Reaching out to communities in this way allows the developer to gain insight on relevant audiences’ views concerning unconventional gas exploration. A message can then be tailored to reach specific demographics.
- Launch grassroots efforts targeting government officials and opinion leaders with letters, emails and calls. Just a few emails from members of the community can be as effective as mass communication because they reach all the right people.
- Coalition building in order to mobilize supporters by encouraging them to create petition booths and attend public hearings in order to voice their support. In many instances, even if members of a community support an unconventional gas exploration development, they may be reluctant to voice their support in a public forum unless they feel that their stance is backed by other members of the community. Effective coalition building can lead to vast networks of supporters in both likely and unlikely places.
- Minimize public opposition by disseminating information to neutral parties in the public, informing all parties affected by the development, and addressing their concerns directly. When neutral parties do not have all the facts about unconventional gas exploration developments, they are more likely to be persuaded by opposition groups.
- Talk directly to the public via social media, phone, and email in order to reach the most people possible. Open lines of communication allow the developer to control the message being sent to the public, receive feedback in order to refine the message, and maintain transparency.
By implementing just a few public affairs tactics, unconventional gas exploration developments can greatly minimize public opposition, and also successfully leveraging public support.
Al Maiorino started Public Strategy Group, Inc. in 1995. He has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as gaming, cable television, retail development, auto racing, power plant/wind farm projects, and housing/residential projects. Al received his BA in political science and a MA in American studies from the University of Connecticut.
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