The Risk Communications Dynamics of Shale Gas

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 24th April 2012

For some time now, gas companies have explored the development of natural gas trapped within shale deposits across parts of New Brunswick. It is a process that brings with it uncertain environmental risks but certain lifestyle annoyances including noise, truck traffic, and the visual disfigurement of the countryside. For some people in the local community, gas drilling has more downside than upside. For these people, local opposition is justified.

However, there is a case to be made for shale gas projects which are undeniably positive for the organizations proposing them. Gas projects are arguably good for other reasons. Natural gas would be welcomed if it could substitute for less environmentally friendly fossil fuels. And there is no question that gas projects will be good for some people in the affected local communities in New Brunswick. The winners will be those who will gain access to employment or business opportunities, royalties or other economic benefits.

In his iconic book, Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication, pre-eminent risk communications consultant and former Rutgers University professor Dr. Peter M. Sandman states that the distinction between hazard (implying not only a threat to life, health, safety, or the environment but everything substantive, including noise and property value) and outrage (implying anger, fear, worry and concern) is not a distinction between data and emotions or between data and values. “Outrage and its elements are as real, measurable, tangible and controllable as hazard and we have better data on outrage than on hazard in many cases,” said Sandman. The dissemination of data may have an impact on the perception of hazard (more safe, less unhealthy, less pollution). Outrage is not simply a distraction from hazard. While both are legitimate and important, outraged people tend not to pay much attention to hazard data.

This exposes an obvious challenge. A project that does more harm than good for most local stakeholders can still meet with approval if the opponents are less passionate. Reducing the passion of opponents can assist a committed minority of activists to gain approval for a project that the majority weakly opposes.

However, a project that achieves greater good than harm for the majority of local stakeholders can still fail to gain approval if those who oppose it are more passionate. Increasing the passion of opponents can assist committed activists who are in the minority to prevent approval of a project that the majority supports but only weakly.

This is not subversive radicalism. This is how democracy functions. “In elections we count noses and while people need enough passion to make it to the polls, any additional passion doesn’t mean additional votes. In issue controversies, the impact that people can have is proportional to their passion,” said Sandman. The most important factor in whether that project is approved or rejected by decision-makers is often how many local stakeholders passionately and actively oppose a project. So activists who oppose shale gas drilling will attempt to increase the passion of shale gas opponents, while shale gas sponsors will attempt to decrease the passion of their opponents. Both sides are making rational decisions. Despite the exasperation of shale gas project proponents, this is not a distortion of democracy any more than legislative lobbying is. Some technical experts have resisted the pressure to consider outrage when making risk management decisions. They insist instead that data, rather than the emotional public, should determine the foundation of policy. But outrage factors are not misperception of risk. They are instead intrinsic elements of what to us constitutes risk. This recognition needs to be the starting point to a respectful treatment of an issue that will have historic implications for the people of this province.

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Filed under New Brunswick, Risk Management, Shale Gas

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