Averil Macdonald is chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas and emeritus professor of science engagement at the University of Reading. She was criticised for comments that suggested the reason women are less supportive of fracking is because they do not understand the science. In this article she defended her comments and outlined her thoughts on the issues. Here, we take a look at some of the statements she made in the article and also the wider research on fracking in the UK.

  • University of Nottingham research published recently revealed some of those differences. Only 31.5% of women are in favour of shale gas exploration compared to 58% of men.”

It is true that women react differently to men when it comes to fracking, but the reasons Macdonald puts forward are somewhat troubling. There are likely many reasons for this divide, but she simplistically attributes it to a lack of understanding, interest or trust in science, without research to back this claim.

  • “It appears that women do accept the rational benefits of shale gas – reducing our reliance on overseas supplies, creating an industry that will provide thousands of jobs, and making a contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and being a transitional stage in the UK’s plan for a low carbon future – but have concerns about fracking technology and its impact on the environment.”

There are also many “rational” drawbacks of shale gas, e.g. groundwater contamination, air and noise pollution, potential increased seismic activity and carbon dioxide and methane emissions contributing to climate change. The concerns about fracking technology and its impact on the environment are valid and listing the benefits while not addressing these is disingenuous. She also does not offer evidence for the assertion that fracking makes a contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in fact new analysis suggests the opposite. If we seriously want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we should be investing in low carbon energy.

  • “Women think differently to men on a whole range of issues – I am sure both men and women would agree with that statement. Quite properly women don’t take issues on trust. They hear the arguments and on one side there are scientific facts, not necessarily explained in the clearest language, on the other emotional fears.”

Neither women nor men are a homogenous group. Contrasting “scientific facts” with “emotional fears” is a mechanism to shut down debate on the many legitimate concerns people have about fracking. It is also troubling that a woman is using the “women are emotional” stereotype to undermine opposition to fracking.

  • “Scientific language does not resonate with them. They do not engage with it. What they do connect with is the impact they think science or technology will have on them and their family.”

Tieing women’s underrepresentation in science to a lack of interest and engagement with scientific issues is unhelpful. As a woman in science, this huge generalisation does not resonate with me- I am sure I am not the only one (check out #FrackingGirlFacts). It would be better to constructively engage with the criticisms and worries of women (or men) rather than suggest they are misguided or unscientific.

  • “I have followed the debate about whether we should explore for shale gas since the beginning and I have been struck by the number of claims that have been made using examples from America – despite the differences in geography, technology and most importantly regulation.”

It is true that the US is not the same as the UK. However, it is also true that fracking in this country is still at an early, exploratory phase with little drilling having actually occurred. The fact that studies from the US where fracking is more established raise these concerns is not irrelevant, since we need to predict future implications of potential widespread fracking in this country.

  • “I began to research the many academic studies that have been undertaken by prestigious universities in the US and UK and have read all the studies commissioned from organisations such as Public Health England and the Royal Society.”

The Public Health England report concludes that the risks to public health from direct releases of chemicals and radioactive material from fracking are low. However, they do not consider groundwater abstraction, water sustainability, occupational health, noise pollution, traffic, visual impact or climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, but emphasise that these are important issues that should be addressed in future research.

The Royal Society report concludes that current research suggests risks of groundwater contamination are low, but more likely causes of possible environmental contamination include faulty wells, and leaks and spills associated with surface operations. Earlier this year, it was revealed that a key recommendation of the report to have independent monitoring of wells was not being implemented, which is a concern for groundwater contamination. The report also concluded that the magnitudes of seismic activity induced by fracking would be low, but this is based on current fracking activity which is small scale. The report states that “Neither risks associated with the subsequent use of shale gas nor climate risks have been analysed”, so it should not be viewed as a definitive conclusion on the future safety of fracking. The government’s opposition to European-wide fracking regulations is worrying, since the main message of the report is that current research suggests risks are low as long as it is strictly regulated. 

Asking the question “is fracking safe?” while neglecting the impacts of burning fossil fuels as in both the Royal Society and Public Health England reviews is a very narrow perspective and illustrates how the questions we ask frame the debate and answers we get. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that we must keep 80% of fossil fuels “in the ground” to avoid catastrophic climate change. Questioning fracking as a solution to energy supply is not scientifically naive.

  • “My conclusion is that developing Britain’s homegrown sources of gas will play a major role in securing energy supplies and moving the nation towards a low-carbon economy – and it can be done safely with minimal impact to local communities.”

Using fracking as a cheap way to bridge the transition to a low carbon economy is a common argument. However, calculations suggest that widespread adoption of fracking without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could lead to the UK missing its carbon reduction targets. It would surely be better to instead invest in low carbon energy sources now for the future. Evidently, the government doesn’t agree.

  • “So that’s why I agreed to become the chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, the body which represents those companies that want to explore for shale gas”

No one is without bias, but it is important to see how people’s roles influence their beliefs and assessments of evidence. Disclosure: I am undertaking a physics PhD in solar cells and believe we should be looking critically at all evidence for energy policy. Like the majority of scientists, I believe that action on climate change must be a priority and as both a woman and a scientist I remain sceptical about the benefits of fracking.


Attribution: RonF – The Weekly Bull
Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/theweeklybull/16190104839/
Response to Averil Macdonald’s Guardian article on women and fracking

One thought on “Response to Averil Macdonald’s Guardian article on women and fracking

  • October 28, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    We should be focussed on ending fossil fuel usage by applying the solutions Rationalism offers, first by learning about and promulgating them, not discussing irrelevant correlation theories.


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