The Great British Frack-up

One of the best known figures in the oil industry had dinner with a leading light from Greenpeace. They were discussing the relative power of the energy industry and the environment movement. The oil boss reported back, “they believe the power has moved to us; they don’t seem to have realised that the power has simply evaporated.”

The oil guy had put his finger on it and I see examples of this most weeks. For oil, gas and energy more generally, the problem of having no ‘location of power’ has become acute, and has led to chronic indecision. Yet this is not always recognised. Old habits die hard and the belief that politicians can be persuaded through elite negotiations (leading them to ‘take a stand’) is a convenient belief for industry. To accept the primacy of public opinion in the modern state is to raise tough questions about one’s ‘licence to operate’. I would argue this was the root cause of the PR disaster this summer in the UK related to fracking.

The core of this is a question about public opinion. We have an electorate that agrees with opinion poll questions when it comes to objectives (e.g. managing climate change), whilst vehemently opposing any practical instruments for achieving those very same objectives (e.g. taxes).

Issue 1 : The public are being invited to judge energy sources individually rather than comparatively

The media pays great attention to the alleged ‘problems’ with any given energy source, and there is a strong case against each. If you actually want to arrive at a decision you need to gradually knock out items, not give a series of yes/no questions. If you give people such binary choices they will simply reject all the propositions in turn. As Machiavelli pointed out several hundred years ago, it is far easier to mobilise opinion against something than it is to mobilise it in favour. Decision making is about the least worst option, the problem is that no one wants to defend such outcomes.

Issue 2 : The failure of the energy industry as a whole to establish a coherent, popular narrative

The reasons for this can be found in conversation with those working in the industry; in short, there is a deep reluctance to engage in what is perceived as ‘politics’. A paradox given that so many in the environment movement believe that the energy companies are running the politics.

These issues are now being resolved in the context of an engaged and vigorous public debate, though not of a type that those who often call for such debates may like. Across Europe there are now rising objections to green taxes. This debate is in its early stages but the movement against green taxes is gaining real traction. It flies in the face of elite belief and behaviour over the last decades ­­- it is about objections to means, not ends, and it has important implications for the fracking debate.

Not limited to energy

Perhaps just as powerful are the groups campaigning on climate change. They are winning the argument amongst elites, but have so far failed to communicate to the general public in a way that moves from objectives to instruments. Elite advocacy does not create change because it does not impact public opinion.

I’ve seen this before, too many times – industry acting on a misguided premise and making major commercial mistakes. About twelve years ago I was sitting in The Hague with the big GMO manufactures. Presentations were given concerning the advantages of GMO tomatoes and so on. Public opinion and the work of pressure groups was raised, but those in the room thought that such issues were for politicians to deal with. Just behind that argument then came another, “we’re not going to pay for public opinion change”.

The result? A setback for the GMO industry by some ten years.

Public opinion is driving energy issues in Europe

With issues like fracking and carbon taxes becoming more controversial, there is a changed atmosphere from even two or three years ago. Thinking through how energy policy in Europe will play out must be grounded in how public opinion is formed. There is an urgent need for the industry to get to grips with the reality highlighted by our oil boss in the beginning. They need to know who the real participants are, which arguments are ‘sticking’, where early wins can be made and all the other factors that need to be taken into account in a discussion conducted in public.

The debate is taking place with or without the energy industry’s involvement; simply replying to allegations is not a strategy.