The most useful academic subject I ever studied was risk management. This taught me how and why people exaggerate, or underplay, the likelihood of certain things happening.

Through my MSc course, I had the honour of meeting Paul Slovic, author of an iconic 1987 paper on the perception of risk. This stated that true risks can be largely distorted in the mind by ‘dread’ and ‘knowability’.

Dread reflects the degree of personal control and possibility of death or catastrophe now or in the future. A dread risk terrifies us, so we want to see it removed, or at least reduced.

Knowability relates to a risk’s novelty, whether it is understood or can be observed and whether its effects are delayed or unknown to those exposed. Lack of knowability makes people anxious. It is unsettling.

Dread and knowability, taken together with how many people may be affected, can be used to predict the public’s perception of risk fairly reliably, Professor Slovic concluded.

Driving a car, for example, is a very familiar risk, taken voluntarily, well understood and personally controlled. The risk of death or injury is perceived as lower than it really is. Who steps behind the wheel thinking that it may be for the last time?

Genetic engineering, nuclear power, nanotechnology and other industries are on the opposite side of the equation.

Shale gas is the latest bogeyman. It certainly ticks a few of the ‘dread’ factors. It is new and little understood by the public, and there are some legitimate concerns about it.

Some of these concerns boil down to energy policy issues. A new dash for gas might divert investment from renewables, for example. And locking into large-scale new gas-fired generation would make it impossible to decarbonise UK electricity by 2030, as recommended by the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change.

If commercial shale gas proves relatively cheap then another risk is that it will encourage consumption across the world by depressing global prices.

On the other hand, more gas use could allow the UK to ditch dirty and inefficient coal-fired power stations sooner (ENDS Report, June 2011), so it could make meeting mid-term carbon targets easier.

Then there are more tangible risks of harm from shale gas exploitation. The tremors – ‘earthquake’ seems too grand a word – that UK shale pioneer Cuadrilla Resources has admitted causing near Blackpool have not helped improve the public image of shale gas. Earthquakes certainly tick the ‘dread’ box.

Nevertheless, they were far too small to cause damage on the surface. And, according to a report commissioned by Cuadrilla, they are most unlikely to be repeated (ENDS Report, November 2011).

The company was just astonishingly unlucky that its first drill site was directly over a stressed fault, primed to move. Such fracking-caused quakes are virtually unprecedented, it says.

As with any industrial site, shale gas extraction presents the risk of surface spills and other such mishaps. There will be additional truck movements, and gas flaring could have air quality impacts.

There is also the issue of who pays for the monitoring of groundwater and flowback water – the fluid that emerges at the surface after fracking.

The Environment Agency has declared that an environmental permit will be needed only where the risk of pollution is significant. This would be the case where a well is drilled through a sensitive drinking water aquifer, for example. This is not the case with Cuadrilla’s wells, a situation likely to be repeated elsewhere.

Without income from permit charges, the cost of monitoring falls on the public purse. This is not an acceptable situation in the long term, but could be solved by a simple amendment to the environmental permitting regulations requiring permits for all shale wells. This might go some way to calm public concerns, too.

The risk of groundwater pollution resulting from chemicals used in fracking or from natural radioactivity it might liberate from the rocks below us, has been dismissed by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive (which regulates the oil and gas industry). The same applies to leaks from poorly-cemented wells.

All of this is not to say that the US experience of shale gas development has been roses and kittens all the way. Regulation of the industry there is slipshod, confused and inadequate. Fracking has been deliberately derogated from usual controls on groundwater pollution, and has been banned in some jurisdictions.

Some operators have been known to cut corners. Disclosure of the chemicals used – far more than would be permitted in the EU – is limited. Even the US Environmental Protection Agency is not entirely certain what is going on. It has been tasked by Congress to find out, and should report next year.

So it is no wonder that there have been pollution incidents in the US and that the industry has developed a poor reputation: the legitimate issues and missteps in US shale gas development noted above add up to quite a long list.

It’s impressive, therefore, that in the public perception the main ‘risk’ of shale gas is something else entirely. This is the fear that fracking for shale gas can cause a flaming jet of methane to come out of your kitchen tap. Its source is the US documentary film Gasland.

But flames will never emerge from my tap; not because I live far from any shale gas reserves, but because this fear is nonsensical.

It turns out that methane contamination of drinking water wells in rural Pennsylvania, far from mains water supply, has been known about for decades – long before there was any fracking in the area. The gas is shallow, and biogenic – produced from bacteria – rather than coming from deep below the ground from broken shale rock.

Despite this, the message that shale gas equates to flaming taps has found a ready audience. In the UK, the Co-operative Group, in full activist mode, has encouraged it by sponsoring showings of Gasland.

Likewise, anti-shale gas protest groups such as ‘Frack Off!’ and ‘The Vale Says No!’ (TVSN), prominently advertise the risks of groundwater contamination on their websites. “Tap water you can set on fire,” says Frack Off!, which also offers the same graphic clip from Gasland.

I recently spoke to several activists about shale gas and drinking water. All insisted that the risks were real and significant. I suspect that some thought I was a paid lobbyist or agent provocateur. It was a strange and uncomfortable sensation.

As I have said, there is plenty to be concerned about with shale gas. But it is not healthy if such a non-issue becomes the focus of debate. In the long-term, spreading what are effectively false fears will only backfire on the environmental movement as a whole. Who will trust the boy who cries wolf?

Postscript

Just as I put the finishing touches to all this, I received an e-mail from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. It announced that it will hold an inquiry into risk perception and energy infrastructure.

Here’s what it says:

The Committee seeks written submissions on the following matters:

What are the key factors influencing public risk perception and tolerability of energy infrastructure facilities and projects?

How are public risk perceptions taken into account in the planning process for energy infrastructure?

How effectively does local and central Government communicate risk and could it be improved?

To what extent can public perceptions be changed by improving risk communication? (please provide examples)

How does and should the Government work with the private sector to understand public perceptions of risk and address them?

How do risk perceptions and communication issues in the UK compare to those of other countries?

The Committee invites written submissions on these issues by noon on Wednesday 14 December 2011.

It looks like the MPs share some of my concerns.