GEO ExPro

Social Seismic: Petroleum and the Public

How do we win the battle for community hearts and minds?
This article appeared in June, 2016

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It is a fact often overlooked by scientists that most (other) people are mostly interested in other people, and they are mostly not interested in anything else. The fact that scientists are more interested than average in things and ideas ... marks them out as mentally very unusual.’ (Stewart & Nield, 2013) 'We underestimated the level of community concern and unrest…Inadequate engagement led to decisions that, in hindsight, were too legalistic in approach… What we ended up doing to rebuild relations and trust was what we should have done in the first place – that was having local community people engaged as liaisons, working at the very start of the project to understand what the concerns were, rather than be driven by a project schedule, which is what essentially happened… We didn’t have what we might have called social licence'. (Murtagh, P. 2015)

These comments from Michael Crothers, Shell’s managing director for exploration and production in Ireland, concern the local conflicts and chronic delays that accrued a €2.4 billion cost overrun on Corrib gas, Ireland’s single most expensive energy infrastructure project. The difficulties of securing public acceptance – the social licence to operate – for major infrastructure or energy projects is, of course, not confined to Ireland. Across the UK over the last year or so, public anxiety over shale gas, coal bed methane, and underground coal gasification has embroiled a suite of energy companies in lengthy and confrontational planning disputes. Neither is the public disquiet limited to issues of hydrocarbon extraction. In Europe especially, the prospect of geological interventions beneath communities has caused alarm, most notably in the local objections to carbon capture and storage projects.

Although gaining community participation in energy projects is also a problem for wind and solar energy plants, there would seem to be a particular popular unease for projects that are delving into the subsurface. In an examination of what drives public protest about carbon capture and storage, for example, Wallquist et al. (2012) note a particular objection to ‘tampering with the subsurface’. This notion of people wishing to see an apparently pristine subsurface remain ‘naturally untouched’ implies a deep-seated comprehension gap between the technical knowledge held by geoscientists and the subterranean conceptualisations held by the public.

During a focus group discussion on seismicity triggered by hydraulic fracturing for shale gas extraction, the following conversation was reported:
'It’s where they’re drilling and it like vibrates the Earth and it caused earthquakes and somebody was saying, ‘Yes it does, it’s okay, it’s manageable’. That was recently. My instinct went, ‘Oh, what are you doing? You know, it’s not right. It doesn’t feel right.’
Mother, Mother & Toddlers group.
(Williams, L. J. 2013)

Mental Models

Example of a ‘mental model’ of the subsurface. (Source: Hazel Gibson) This realisation that ordinary people lack a clear grasp of the geological subsurface has been examined in more detail in a collaborative research project between geologists and cognitive psychologists at Plymouth University (Gibson et al., 2016). The study looked at how geologists and non-geologists perceive the geology beneath south-west England, an area with a strong historical association with underground tin mining and where deep geothermal projects are proposed. And it was heat - whether understood from local mining stories or knowledge of the geothermal potential - that was a recurring feature in interviews with local residents. The depth at which this heat was encountered, however, was a source of confusion. One interviewee suggested it was, 

'… down towards the very, very bottom of the Earth. That’s because it’s where it’s all broken down even more and I presume that’s where the heat of the Earth is.' 

Another proposed, 

Just probably a thousand miles deep, I don’t know, I can’t really visualise it.’. 

And while an anthropologic subsurface of shafts, tunnels and even buildings were readily imagined, the surrounding rock was labelled simply as ‘dark’ or ‘hot’.

The results support the view that, even in a region with a strong cultural affinity to the subsurface, there is a cognitive dissonance with what lies beneath. Individuals lacking a grounding in geology were vague and uncertain about what lay below ground, and often filled those cognitive gaps by borrowing features or relations from above ground, such as assuming that springs and rivers at the surface were fed from underground rivers. The study reminds us that through our training, geologists see the subterranean world very differently from ‘normal’ people (Stewart & Nield, 2013). In exchanges between geoscientists, that peculiar outlook is not a problem, but in dialogues with the public our distinctive lens into the subsurface become more problematic.

Interviewee 1: It’s the foundation of this country and if that happens all over the country…it worries me and I think that it would make them very unstable or I’d have that feeling…
Interviewee 2: Yeah. Well, fracture means break, doesn’t it.
Interviewee 1: Absolutely.
Interviewee 2: You’re breaking something.
(Williams, L. J. 2013)

A loose or misplaced analogy can be counter-effective, as recorded in this focus-group discussion in which the geological expert used the term ‘bubble’ to describe CO2 storage in an underground aquifer.

Participant: ' … you mentioned the world ‘bubble’ … it’s looking for an escape… If it’s that large, that much of an area that it’s [the CO2] going to be in, it’s going to be more than just catastrophic isn’t it really [if it bursts]?'
Geologist: '... Well it’s not explosive ... Underground it’s not a bubble and I probably shouldn’t have used that word... We term it the CO2 bubble but it’s not really a bubble because it’s not existing on its own ….. it’s actually in the rock pore spaces ….. there will be dissolving in some of the water, it will be reacting with some of the minerals in the rock.'  [Geologist leaves the room and Participant turns to her neighbour and says]
Participant: ’She scared the living daylights out of me, [saying] there’s this bubble..!'
(Shackley et al., 2005)
  • Percentage of respondents who did not agree, who did not know or who agreed with each technical mental concept and belief about carbon capture and storage (CCS). Amongst the noteworthy observations that may be made is the contrasting notions of CCS as a sponge vs a balloon. (Source: Wallquist et al. 2010)

Multiple Publics

By and large, when geoscientists confront the public we do so recognising that there are very different stakeholders. Whether it is technical experts, industry professionals, regulators, elected civic officials, activists, concerned citizens and the media (and through the media, the rest of the public), it is accepted that these multiple publics require targeting with different communication messages. More problematic is the recognition that each of these stakeholder groups are themselves multiple publics, which not only display very different levels of scientific knowledge, but also show a diverse grasp of what science (and technology) is and how it should be used. And it is people’s attitudes to scientific or technological issues, and their underpinning values and beliefs, that explain why conflicting, and at times contradictory, views emerge from within the same stakeholder community.

There is long and extensive academic literature in the human and behavioural sciences about public attitudes to science and technology, but arguably one of the most succinct and pointed summaries lies in a recent CSIRO survey (Cormick, 2014). The Australian survey follows previous studies in recognising different science publics, each of which required different messaging strategies. For a sizeable portion (40%) of the sample population, science was a turn off; not only was science largely unknown to them, but they were largely unknown to science. This disinterested or disengaged camp lie beyond the reach of conventional science communication strategies. Indeed, when asked who, if not scientists, they most relied on to tell them about a science issue, this group cited friends, relatives and media commentators, without expecting these people to have any additional technical expertise; they simply trusted them.

The CSIRO survey also examined people’s underlying values and beliefs as a gauge of how they positioned themselves with respect to science. Four values-based groups emerged. The most positive towards science was Group A ‘the science fans’ (23%), who expressed highest agreement that science is important to solving society’s problems and least concern that science did more harm than good or advanced at too fast a pace. A second group, B, the cautiously keen (28%) had a high interest in science but reservations on some aspects of it, while a third ‘risk averse’ group, C, (23%) were conservative in their outlook, less inclined towards science and more concerned with its risks. Finally, there was D, the ‘concerned and disengaged’ group (20%), which were the least enthusiastic about the benefits of science and technology and most suspicious of its motives.

  • “Public concerns about contentious science or technologies are almost never about the science - and scientific information therefore does little to influence these concerns.” (Cormick, 2014).

The key point that emerges is that the responses from the pro-science ‘fans’ were significantly different to the average community responses from any other segment. Indeed, the three other value-groups shared more in common with each other than they did with the ‘science fans’. In other words, those who see scientific knowledge and technology as the answer to societal challenges are a marginalised sector of the general population. In fact, in many respects, we are the outlier.

This is an uncomfortable recognition that underpins the key communication challenges highlighted in the study, which are:

  • When information is complex, people make decisions based on their values and beliefs.
  • People seek affirmation of their attitudes (or beliefs) – no matter how fringe – and will reject any information or evidence that are counter to their attitudes (or beliefs).
  • People most trust those whose values mirror their own.
  • Attitudes that were not formed by logic (nor facts) are not influenced by logical (nor factual) arguments.


For most industry professionals, public communication strategies are built around conveying clear, simple explanations of the technical detail (‘the facts’) surrounding a particular issue of societal concern. They do that because that is what they have been trained to do, and because it is that technical know-how that satisfies their own perspective on the problem. Relevant facts and figures, simple graphics and a language uncluttered by jargon are brought together to address the wider public worries. The message emerging from the science communication realm is that such an approach does little to influence the majority of the concerned public, who have made up their mind about the issue not on the basis of the facts but on the basic of their gut instinct, and reinforced it by consulting with those around them.

  • Scientists are used to communicating in a certain format, beginning with background information, moving to supporting details, and finally coming to their results and conclusions. But for communicating with the public they need to invert that pyramid and begin with the bottom line, explaining to people why they should care - the “so what” question. (Stewart & Nield, 2013). (Image from Somerville and Hassol, 2011).

The Community Play

Oil and gas industry professionals are long used to analysing how individual petroleum systems – source, reservoir, seal and migration pathways - have co-evolved to give the present-day configuration. Few spend anything like the same time, attention or budget mapping the communities above ground. And yet, a ‘community’ is a heterogeneous play of competing stakeholder groups, of varying coherence, power and networks, amid a backgound of disparate political, economic, social and cultural interests. As a consequence, at any given time, a community confronts multiple concerns - some homegrown, others external – onto which a planning proposal for oil or gas exploration imposes additional stress. Perhaps most critically, every community has a history - a ‘social memory’ accrued through past disturbances, interventions and opportunities that condition how the current community reacts to a new external ‘threat’.

A graphical representation of how the public perceives risk. This plot shows a number of different hazards plotted in the psychometric framework - the amount that the hazard is seen as ‘dreaded’ or ‘unknown’ is represented on the x- and y-axes, respectively. Based on public responses, the public’s perception is indicated by the size of the point. The psychometric model predicts that the public is more accepting of less risky activities (those in the lower left quadrant), and more fearful of those in the upper right quadrant. (Redrawn from Slovic, 1987). For decades it has been recognised by environmental psychologists that people perceive risk very different to the way technical experts do, often framing it in terms of the degree to which risky phenomena are known and/or dreaded by the public (Slovic, 1987). For the risk communication specialist Peter Sandman (1993), environmental risks can be deconvolved into two competing public frames. The first one is technical, involving arguments that pertain to the scientific analysis of the hazards that are perceived to threaten a community. The second is social, focusing on the processes by which a community’s concerns about hazard threats build into anxiety, then anger, and finally outrage. Sandman contended that, by and large, when the experts and the public disagree about the technical side, such as the size of a particular risk or its probability of occurrence, the experts are more likely to be right. At the same time, the component of the perceived risk that is socially constructed is dismissed by technical experts as irrational, unfounded or manipulated. However, as is evident from community protests, the resulting outrage is as real and measureable as the underlying hazard.

In this context, risk is a product of hazard and outrage. Generally, the anxious public cares too little about resolving the hazard component and anxious experts care too little about resolving the outrage component. Sandman (1993) argues that technical experts - because they are fixated by the hazard - tend to overestimate the risk when the hazard is high and the outrage is low, and underestimate the risk when the hazard is low and the outrage is high. The public are a mirror image, fixating on outrage and ignoring the technical hazard. The public, therefore, overestimates the risk when the outrage is high and the hazard is low, and underestimates the risk when the outrage is low and the hazard is high.

  • The public often misrepresent the hazard. The experts often misperceive the outrage. But the overarching problem is that the public cares too little about the hazard, and the experts care too little about the outrage. If people are outraged because they overestimate the hazard, the solution is to explain the hazard better. (CREDO)

  • Anti-fracking poster in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Álava, Spain. Date: October 2012. (Source: Zarateman)

Effective Communication

The implication is that for technical experts to be more effective engagers with communities they are going to have to improve two fundamental skillsets. First, they are going to have to learn how to communicate better in order to more simply convey the technical basis of their work, particularly the hazard. Across the industry, many professional geoscientists are being upskilled in this way by media communications teams. But learning how to explain hazard better is only one half of the community risk equation. The second, and arguably much more tricky task that geoscience communicators need to learn, is how to listen better - to hear first-hand the views of non-experts about their informal comprehension of the hazard in order to better appreciate the roots of community concern.

Our message that professional geoscientists ought to be responsive to the lay concerns of non-experts will irritate many reading this article. After all, it is almost certain that most of those concerns will have little or no technical salience to the problem at hand. Moreover, the social concerns that underpin community outrage are remote from scientific training of most industry professionals. Nevertheless, confronting these concerns, and gauging their significance as barriers to gaining the social licence to operate, allows technical risk communicators to design more effective strategies to convey those aspects of the science that community members do consider most worrisome. In addition, more equitable dialogues with concerned citizens - acknowledging the legitimacy of their worries, however outlandish or infeasible - brokers trust, builds goodwill and bonds shared values and beliefs. In other words, the very act of engagement with a community itself reduces outrage.

  • Confronting concerns and gauging their significance , allows technical risk communicators to design effective strategies to convey the science.

  • Responding to Community Outrage: strategies for risk communication. (Source: Sandman, P.M., 1993. AIHA.)

For those that remain unconvinced, and prefer the long-standing view that the battle for community hearts and minds will be won by the information war - filling the knowledge gap in people’s technical understanding, - a key conclusion of the recent Australia study of public attitudes to science and technology is pertinent (Cormick, C. 2014),

Public concerns about contentious science or technologies are almost never about the science - and scientific information therefore does little to influence those concerns.’

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