A report by the United Kingdom’s University of Nottingham indicates that public opinion in the country is beginning to shift in favor of unconventional natural gas development, which uses hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country “cannot afford to miss out on fracking,” insisting the practice is safe, would create jobs and lower energy bills.

Researchers conducted regular surveys over a 16-month period from March 2012 to July. The university said although respondents took heed of warnings about seismic activity, groundwater contamination and carbon emissions, more were looking favorably at shale gas.

According to the poll, 55% of respondents in the final survey in July characterized shale gas as a “cheap fuel,” up from 40.5% from March 2012. Meanwhile, the positive rating for shale gas, calculated by taking the number of respondents who associated shale gas as a cheap fuel and subtracting those respondents who didn’t make that association, rose steadily from +11.4 in the initial poll to +34.4 in the final poll.

“Shale gas may be seen as ‘cheap,’ and therefore of appeal to people who see themselves as potential consumers,” said research team co-leader Mathew Humphrey, a professor at Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations. “But do people believe it to be clean? Here the plurality is against shale, but again the trends are moving steadily in favor of shale gas.”

The poll found that in March 2012, 25.3% of respondents thought shale gas was a “clean” energy source, compared with 44.8% who did not, resulting in a negative rating of -19.5. But when the last survey was conducted in July, 33.5% believed shale gas was a “clean” energy source while 36.5% disagreed, resulting in a negative rating of -3.

The Nottingham researchers observed a similar trend when respondents were asked to opine shale gas development’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions and groundwater contamination. In the initial survey, 27% of respondents said shale was bad for the atmosphere, compared to 2.6% who said it was good, resulting in a negative rating of -0.4. Public opinion shifted by the time of the final survey, which found 32.8% believed shale was good and 19.3% didn’t, resulting in a positive rating of +13.5.

On groundwater contamination, respondents associated it with shale gas by a 44.5-23.9% margin in March 2012, for a negative rating of -20.6. The negative association still stuck at time of the final survey in July (35.2-29.8%), but the negative rating was a much smaller -5.4.

Nottingham researchers added that “one association that is firmly planted in the public mind is between shale gas and ‘earthquakes.’ The number of people making this association has remained high throughout.” The university did not provide polling numbers.

“Overall we see very clear trends in this data, and the British public continue to warm to shale,” said co-leader of the research team Sarah O’Hara, a professor in the School of Geography. “However, this does not entail that shale gas is a wildly popular alternative to other forms of energy, although it remains to be seen whether that will change if the current movement in the climate of opinion continues.”

In an editorial published Monday in London’s Daily Telegraph, Cameron made it clear that he supports shale gas development. “Fracking has become a national debate in Britain — and it’s one that I’m determined to win,” he said. “If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive. Without it, we could lose ground in the tough global race.”

Cameron said reports that the British government wanted to limit fracking to certain parts of the country were false. “I want all parts of our nation to share in the benefits: north or south, Conservative or Labour. We are all in this together…We cannot afford to miss out on fracking. For centuries, Britain has led the way in technological endeavour: an industrial revolution ahead of its time, many of the most vital scientific discoveries known to mankind, and a spirit of enterprise and innovation that has served us well down the decades. Fracking is part of this tradition, so let’s seize it.”

About 10 projects are in development to drill for shale gas in the UK, but only Cuadrilla Resources, chaired by former BP plc chief Lord John Browne, is engaged in drilling (see Shale Daily, May 7). The British Geological Survey believes the Bowland-Hodder Shale in northern England contains between 822 and 2,281 Tcf of natural gas in place (see Shale Daily, June 28).