BackgroundTHIS RULING REPLACES THAT PUBLISHED ON 6 MAY 2015. THE VERDICT HAS CHANGED, MAKING THE COMPLAINT NOT UPHELD.
A national press ad, seen on 14 January 2015, featured an image of a house on a plot of land, with a tanker lorry and drilling rig outside it. A cross-section of the land showed a drilling pipe beneath the property. Text stated, “NO FRACKING UNDER MY HOME TEXT NO FRACK … TO SIGN THE PETITION Fracking threatens our climate, our countryside and our water. Yet experts agree - it won't cut our energy bills. Stop the government’s plan to allow fracking firms to drill under your home without your permission. Text to sign now to protect your rights and the planet”.
Lord Lipsey, a member of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which heard evidence on the impact of fracking in February 2014, understood there were a range of views on whether fracking would reduce energy prices and therefore challenged whether the claim “experts agree - it won't cut our energy bills” was misleading and could be substantiated.
Greenpeace UK Ltd (Greenpeace) provided an overview of fracking, which they said was relatively new to the UK and had given rise to serious and widespread environmental, social and local concerns. They said the claim was made in the context of public debate on Government’s policy on fracking and of a DECC consultation that proposed changes to the law. They explained that key figures in Government supported fracking and cited two quotations from the Prime Minister about the impact of fracking on energy prices that had appeared in a news article by him in August 2013. Greenpeace believed such well-publicised quotes to be misleading and therefore sought to correct them in the ad as part of the public debate. They said many experts had stated that fracking would not lower energy costs and the claim was made in light of that. They also provided quotes from various people, groups or organisations about the impact of fracking on prices, including links to news articles and online information. They said that “experts agree” did not state or imply that all experts agreed. They believed that restricting their right to say that experts agreed that fracking would not cut energy bills would be a breach of their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ASA noted Greenpeace’s contention concerning Article 10 and that fracking was an important matter of public debate. We noted that the Committee of Advertising Practice had in 2014 reviewed the extent to which the CAP Code should continue to apply to campaigning material for a cause or idea (other than electioneering), and had concluded that it should continue to apply where such material appeared in paid for space. We noted that Article 10(2) provided that freedom of expression could be restricted, in a proportionate manner, where necessary in a democratic society in certain circumstances, including for the protection of the rights of others. In our view that included the right of energy consumers, property owners and those who valued the climate, countryside and water not to be misled about fracking (for example into signing a petition which they might not otherwise have signed), and of those involved in proposed fracking not to be subject to a misleading claim. We therefore considered it was appropriate to investigate the complainant’s concern.
We considered the claim “experts agree - it won't cut our energy bills” was likely to be interpreted by readers, in particular in the context of an ad by a campaigning organisation, and of uncertainties in the energy market, to mean there was a general consensus among most experts in January 2015 that fracking, if introduced in the UK on a reasonable scale, was very unlikely meaningfully to reduce the price of UK domestic energy.
We understood some experts had expressed opinions, albeit conditionally, that indicated they believed there was a possibility that energy prices could be reduced. For example, among the range of views given to the House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee at its 2014 inquiry, Policy Exchange stated “… it is too early to be able to meaningfully quantify the impact shale will have on energy bills. All we can say at this stage is that, if shale production can be achieved economically (a big if), it is displacing some more expensive source … So in that sense, shale gas production will lower prices at least compared to what they otherwise would have been”. The Committee’s report of May 2014 included a conclusion that one of the benefits of developing shale gas in the UK on a substantial scale was a reduced risk of gas price increases, or even a fall in prices.
Although dependent on a range of factors, a June 2011 report commissioned by Ofgem, on The Impact of Unconventional Gas on Europe, included the statements “we conclude that there is potential for shale gas to affect GB gas prices, but only the Boom scenario has significantly lower prices” and “Prices in the Restrained and Balanced scenarios are similar until around 2020 when the differences in unconventional gas production in each of the scenarios is great enough to have a significant impact on the marginal gas price of gas available in GB”. The Task Force on Shale Gas stated in their Final Report, on economic impacts, in December 2015 that “it seems that the impact of a shale gas industry in the UK alone would not be sufficient to reduce prices in Europe … similarly, the EU’s combined shale gas industries are unlikely to have a large impact”, however that was long after appearance of the ad, and so could not be used to justify the claim.
Other views included those of UK Energy Research Centre experts, who were cited in the press as saying that even if large-scale shale gas production happened, it would not be sufficient “to have much effect on gas prices”, and of Cambridge Econometrics, who stated “it is unlikely a scale of production could be reached that would meaningfully impact on EU energy prices”. The DECC’s September 2013 report on Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction, co-authored by the government’s then Chief Scientific Advisor, stated “the effect of UK shale gas production on gas prices is likely to be small”. We acknowledged that among the material Greenpeace had provided, there were quotations indicating clearer support for the view that fracking would not reduce prices. For example, we understood from the 2011 report commissioned by Ofgem that while domestic energy prices in the USA had fallen as a result of fracking, the circumstances in the UK (including its greater population density, and the manner in which UK gas supply was tied into supply and demand in continental Europe) meant the same likelihood did not necessarily exist in this country, at least without significant production elsewhere.
We noted a minority of the quotes provided by Greenpeace decisively stated that fracking would not reduce the cost of energy bills. While a range of more conditional expert views also existed, the general consensus among most appeared to be that a meaningful reduction in UK domestic energy bills was highly unlikely and/or was limited to a small number of potential scenarios. We therefore considered the claim as it was likely to be interpreted by readers had been substantiated and was not materially misleading.
We investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.