Risk Analysis

Communicating Low‐Probability High‐Consequence Risk, Uncertainty and Expert Confidence: Induced Seismicity of Deep Geothermal Energy and Shale Gas

Journal Article


Subsurface energy activities entail the risk of induced seismicity including low‐probability high‐consequence (LPHC) events. For designing respective risk communication, the scientific literature lacks empirical evidence of how the public reacts to different written risk communication formats about such LPHC events and to related uncertainty or expert confidence. This study presents findings from an online experiment (N = 590) that empirically tested the public's responses to risk communication about induced seismicity and to different technology frames, namely deep geothermal energy (DGE) and shale gas (between‐subject design). Three incrementally different formats of written risk communication were tested: (i) qualitative, (ii) qualitative and quantitative, and (iii) qualitative and quantitative with risk comparison. Respondents found the latter two the easiest to understand, the most exact, and liked them the most. Adding uncertainty and expert confidence statements made the risk communication less clear, less easy to understand and increased concern. Above all, the technology for which risks are communicated and its acceptance mattered strongly: respondents in the shale gas condition found the identical risk communication less trustworthy and more concerning than in the DGE conditions. They also liked the risk communication overall less. For practitioners in DGE or shale gas projects, the study shows that the public would appreciate efforts in describing LPHC risks with numbers and optionally risk comparisons. However, there seems to be a trade‐off between aiming for transparency by disclosing uncertainty and limited expert confidence, and thereby decreasing clarity and increasing concern in the view of the public.

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