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Under the Airth: contested environmental claims of an unexploited gas resource

Being the first of a two-part GOXI blog on the environmental claims and counter-claims regarding UK unconventional petroleum extraction, and competing stakeholder viewpoints on all of the above

As described by Scottish tourism agency, Visit Scotland, “Airth is a pretty conservation village that lies on the south bank of the River Forth”, upstream of Edinburgh, our national capital. For a settlement of some 1,700 people, its environs contain some very memorable architecture, in particular the Dunmore Pineapple building (shown below; photo credit) located just outside of the village itself:

Also just outside of the village Airth is the location that Dart Energy lodged an application to drill Coal Bed Methane (CBM).  CBM, called Coal Seam Gas in Australia and some other nations, is one of three types of unconventional petroleum – its siblings being Hydraulic Fracturing (“fracking”) and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG).  Perhaps because UCG and CBM have a generally far lower profile amongst the UK public than fracking, some opponents of unconventional petroleum use the tactic of referring to all three as “fracking technologies” in order to conflate one with another, maybe with the intentions of converting public opposition to fracking into opposition to UCG and CBM too.

A good example of such activism is the as follows: “Liverpool is surrounded by all three fracking technologies – Shale gas/oil, Coal Bed Methane and Underground Coal Gasification. Rural communities who live in the surrounding area are getting organised, this is a chance for those that live in or near the city to show some solidarity with those threatened communities and to let it be known, WE ARE NOT GOING TO LET THIS HAPPEN!”. Source: Frack Free Walkden & Beyond blog. 

Returning to Airth: Dart Energy appealed against the time that local authority Falkirk Council was taking to determine its application to drill 22 CBM wells and construct supporting upstream and midstream facilities.  The original 2012 application, which was the first in the UK to undertake unconventional gas extraction, attracted over 2,500 objections.  Environmental concerns, all of them contested – including ground and air pollution, climate change, and the risk of triggering earthquakes – were central to the debate.  Dart remained adamant that many of the concerns consisted of “unfounded speculation”, the result of “scaremongering”.  The company referenced the environmental studies, waste management plan and the transparency shown regarding its venting and flaring plans, all of which it published.

However, the CBM drilling never took place. In May 2014, Dart Energy merged with fellow unconventional petroleum E&P company, iGas Energy; the merger was not seen as a marriage of equals, as this contemporary newspaper headline makes clear: “Struggling Dart Energy agrees to merger with Britain's iGas Energy”. In 2015, one year later, iGas Energy announced that “in light of the prevailing oil price environment, IGas has undertaken a review of its cost base.... Overall, there will be headcount reductions of more than 25%, including the closure of the former Dart (Energy) office in Stirling, Scotland.”

What can be learnt from this story?  “Arrogance” is a term used in a personal statement by Johnny Linehan on UK the homepage of CSG-named website http://www.coal-seam-gas.com/uk/, a statement presented in the same text box as that reporting on Dart Energy’s Airth activities.  Is this fair?  Not being closely involved in this case, I don’t want to, and am not qualified, to judge  – in any event, GOXIans will form their own view. 

However, I do think that there is a discernible tendency for some upstream unconventional petroleum companies to deploy asymmetric marketing/ PR communications in preference to genuine community and stakeholder engagement.

This can easily descend into a lecturing approach, one that goes down badly with residents who like to think for themselves rather than have companies make up their minds for them – i.e. pretty much everyone. 

Outflanking of these companies becomes much easier in such circumstances, as amply demonstrated by determined, anti-unconventionals, activist NGOs claiming to represent the views of “concerned communities”, e.g. the local-to-Airth “Concerned Communities of Falkirk: Falkirk Against Unconventional Gas”.   I conclude that this situation is unlikely to change unless the operators are willing to change tack fundamentally, rather than cosmetically, and actually talk to people as equals, in genuine conversation. 

In case there is any doubt what a genuine conversation consists of, the historian and author Theodore Zeldin aptly describes it as follows: “conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits.  When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, and engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t’ just reshuffle the cards, it creates new cards”. 

In stakeholder engagement terms, that means listening as much as - if not far more than - talking, respecting the views of stakeholders rather than just tolerating or working around them, empathy, and a willingness to change approach in light of what is said.  Time to get to work.

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