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25 Sep 2013

The Big Debate: Is there a ‘Transition position’ on fracking?

During August, at the peak of the campaign against the fracking for natural gas at Balcombe, West Sussex, the BBC ran a story called Dorking ‘green’ group in favour of fracking.  It stated, “One group in Surrey set up to encourage sustainable living has come out in favour of exploration and fracking, the process which may have to be used in future to extract the oil and gas.  Transition Dorking says it has surprised even itself”. 

What the BBC said

Although the article ran with the mention of the Transition group in its headline, the bulk of the article featured quotes from other people, Transition Dorking only appearing in the opening section, presumably because it was a green group taking a different approach on fracking was the most headline-worthy. 

It quoted the group’s Nick Wright as arguing that locally-produced fuels could be less damaging than imported fossil fuels:

“We can’t move straight away to a future in which a very high proportion of our power requirements are generated by renewable resources.  Renewables are about 11% of electricity generation now but a much bigger proportion – about 40% – is being generated by imported coal burnt in British power stations.

In addition to that, gas is being brought in in liquefied form from the Middle East.  When you burn it, the impact on the environment isn’t only to do with burning the fuel, it is to do with how you got hold of it and how you shipped it to where you are.  There’s no reason why fracking, if it is properly regulated, should not be a perfectly normal part of oil industry operations.”

Transition Dorking

Clearly for the BBC, a local green group being seen to be in favour of fracking is a great story.  But is that really what they said?  In the days after the story ran, Transition Network received many emails and tweets from people expressing their dismay and asking what is our official position on fracking.  That’s an interesting question, and one that we’ll explore in this piece.


Unsurprisingly, as well as anti-fracking activists who expressed their dismay at Transition Dorking’s stance, the story was also seized on by those in favour of the approach.  Priti Patel, Conservative MP for nearby Witham, wrote on her blog:

“Although some environmental groups, such as Transition Dorking have shown they can take a more moderate and pragmatic approach to shale gas opportunities, it is shocking to see so many groups taking a hostile approach”. 

The Surrey Advertiser ran a headline Unity over fracking starts to fracture, and stating that Transition Dorking “is broadly in favour of at least looking into the viability of fracking”.  It quoted Sally Elias from the group as saying:

“That view has created quite a stir in the town and some people have come up to me and are quite angry, asking why Transition Dorking has taken this position.  But we need to get people to think very seriously – we have to look at other sources of power in the transition to the post peak oil era”. 

So is Transition Dorking really “in favour of fracking?”  It turns out that the reality behind the Dorking story is far less black and white than the BBC and Patel might have us believe. 

What Transition Dorking said

I spoke to Nick Wright of Transition Dorking, who has a background in the oil and gas industry and who used to work with Dr Colin Campbell, one of the founders of the peak oil movement, to find out more.  

Nick Wright in the Dorking Community Orchard

One of the first things I wondered, given some of the comments on Twitter as to how someone with a background in the oil and gas industry was spokesperson for a Transition group, and suggestions that somehow the group had been “hijacked”, was how did he end up getting involved in Transition?

“There’s a terribly easy answer to that.  You’ll find that people who really fundamentally understand the reality of climate change will include a large number of geologists because that’s been part of our training, our background, and our experience in the field.  We have always known that climate change is a fact.  You also have, among geologists, a high proportion of people who love the outdoors, who know the mountains, who know the Arctic, who know the world from a more environmental point of view, who understand its resource base, and understand the complexities of energy supply.  That seems like perfectly good qualifications for getting involved in the Transition movement.  Personally I don’t see any contradiction at all”. 

I asked him what it was that had led to Transition Dorking taking this public stance.  The group write a regular column in their local paper, and had used one to set out their argument that we ought not rush to dismiss fracking out of hand without a reasoned look at the whole issue.  This was then picked up by another local paper, then by local radio, then BBC Surrey, and then the BBC nationally. By then it had developed a life of its own. But why, I wondered, had they felt drawn to raising the issue in the first place?

“When it (the fracking issue) pops up suddenly with grossly exaggerated claims appearing in the press as to what the resource potential for shale gas might be in the country, and suddenly people start imagining a world where it looks like Baku, with rigs everywhere, and they just don’t know. You get people leaping onto the bandwagon with their own agendas and using that insubstantiated fear to whip up public emotion, and it starts to get the characteristics of a witchhunt.  It’s very odd.  That’s not to say fracking for shale gas doesn’t have risks or we shouldn’t have concerns, all these other things are true, but it’s not helpful to get diverted onto fear-based arguments that are not grounded in fact, we need a better-informed debate”. 

I wanted to hear, from the horse’s mouth, what was the argument that underpinned Transition Dorking’s position?

“Coal now accounts for 40% of the UK’s electricity generation, a disgrace, but this is being driven by the fact that our natural gas supply is declining.  Unless we do something, that will be replaced by coal.  Of course we’d like to see it replaced by renewables, but we also have to live in the real world. To offset gas declines over the next 5 years with wind, we will need to quadruple, at least, the number of wind turbines that we currently have in this country.  I would love to believe that could happen, but I’m sorry, I’m a realist, I just don’t think it will.

I don’t think we’re capable, as a country, of quadrupling, or sextupling, the number of wind turbines we have in this timeframe.  Apart from anything else, I don’t think the population will stand it from a landscape point of view.  We’re also starting to run out of easily accessible shallow water marine locations that would allow another 6 Thames Arrays to be built.  Unless we do something about it, she shortfall is going to be clearly taken up with coal.  That’s what’s happening.  Why would we not therefore consider a source to replace declining North Sea gas. That’s really what we’re talking about.  Why would we not at least try to minimise that decline in domestic gas production?”

Ultimately, as Nick put it, the question is “how do we get to the zero carbon future we all aspire to?”

Transition Dorking’s letter to the local paper

This more nuanced position is most clearly set out in the letter they wrote to their local paper, the Dorking Advertiser, who first ran the “local group supports fracking” story.  Their letter read:

Dear Sir, 

Transition Dorking seems to have caused a stir by suggesting that the exploitation of shale gas resources, using the technology known as “fracking”, might provide part of the solution of the energy crisis which this country will be facing over the next decade – a crisis which is already resulting in a big increase in the use of high carbon emission coal in UK power stations. Perhaps we need to re-state our position: 

1)      Our primary concern is the global emissions of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, which are driving the planet inexorably towards a full-blown climate crisis.

2)      We share the aim of a “Zero Carbon Britain”, but we recognize that what happens in China, India, Brazil, USA  etc. will have  the dominant global impact.

3)      The question is – how to we get from where we are currently (40% coal burning in UK power stations, only 11% renewables, gas from the North Sea declining rapidly) to the Zero Carbon future we all desire? A massive increase in investment in wind, tidal and solar energy will be necessary, although we see little sign of support for this from the present government. It will take an enormous commitment from society and from business, but already local opposition to wind farms in particular is a significant negative factor.

4)      At a local level, we must focus on reducing our direct and indirect energy consumption through better home insulation, local PV and hydro-electric systems, car-share schemes, supporting local food sources, re-cycling, eating less meat etc, and Transition Dorking has active projects in many of these areas.

5)      It is doubtful, however, that these local or UK-wide efforts will have a sufficient impact in the short term to prevent the “tipping point” of atmospheric carbon being reached within the next decade or so. The “elephant in the room” is the world-wide burning of coal for power generation, particularly in China and India which between them are building hundreds of new coal power stations and planning hundreds more . Replacing this massive and increasing consumption of coal with gas would significantly reduce carbon emissions, as has been seen in the USA over the past few years, and might start to provide an “energy bridge” as renewable alternatives are developed. The Chinese, it should be noted, are putting a lot of effort into both renewables and shale gas exploration – and we should all hope for the sake of the planet that they are successful.

6)      We recognize that there are concerns over the safety and environmental impact of potential shale gas operations, but there have been a lot of exaggerated and ill-informed claims bandied around in the press and on the internet. Much of this fear is based on un-familiarity with the Oil & Gas industry, which if tightly regulated and following best engineering practice is perfectly capable of conducting its operations safely and sensitively – and has done so in the UK for many years under one of the strictest regulatory regimes in the world.  We should make sure that Government and DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) devise  and enforce the best possible regulations for the nascent shale gas industry, particularly in key areas such as methane venting during well clean-up, and wellbore integrity to prevent cross-contamination of aquifers.

7)       We desperately need a long term, realistic and achievable national energy strategy, which sets out how we can move from the present un-sustainable situation to a Zero Carbon future. Only government can provide this. But we believe that this strategy will have to consider both the whole range of energy conservation measures and all potential energy sources – North Sea gas, imported gas, Liquified Natural Gas, coal, hydro, PV, wind, tidal, AND shale gas – in order to achieve the transition to Zero Carbon without massive economic and social disruption. 

8) Transition Dorking is working to make fracking for shale gas unnecessary, but in the nearer term we need to know whether we even have a significant shale gas resource in this country – something which remains to be proven. We should not simply reject this potential resource out of hand. We need to find out more, encourage an informed debate on the subject, and ensure that government provides the best possible regulatory environment for any possible future development. 

Yours sincerely, 

Nick Wright.  Energy Consultant and Member of Transition Dorking Energy Group

It’s clear that Transition Dorking have given this a lot of thought.  

So what is Transition Network’s position on fracking?

What does all this mean for Transition Network?  Should we have a formal stance on fracking?  If some Transition groups are coming out in public in favour of gas fracking, should Transition Network somehow issue a three-line whip and bring them all to account behind a standard party line, or is it OK for each group to come to its own position based on its own evaluation of the arguments for and against? Nick Wright put it like this:

“What is Transition?  We’re a network, not a hierarchical political party with a party line that needs to be followed, policies and platforms that get debated and then agreed on, we are a collection of individuals and individual projects.  People need to calm down a bit, and let’s have a reasoned debate.  I don’t know if it’s appropriate for Transition Network to have a position, a view, a party line.  Is that the sort of thing Transition Network should be about, or is it more to do with having an agreed set of objectives and a forum for an open, reasoned and grown up discussion around the best way to achieve that objective?  People say “you’re not representing the Transition point of view”?  And we say “what is the Transition point of view?”

Already a number of Transition initiatives have made their positions on the subject clearly known.  Transition Louth have come out strongly opposed to fracking, and have featured extensive resources on the issue on their website.  Transition Cowbridge ran a successful campaign to stop a fracking application near them, and remain vigilant for follow-up applicationsTransition LlantwitTransition Culver City, Buckingham in TransitionTransition Forest Row and Transition Morecambe have all strongly come out against fracking.  Cuckmere Valley Transition screened the recent film Split Estate (Matt Damon’s recent drama about a community confronted by fracking).  

Transition Keynsham has taken a similar position, declaring

“Transition Keynsham believes the evidence and risks related to fracking and coal bed methane extraction make them unacceptable energy options for Keynsham and Somerset.  We feel that they threaten safety, health, landscape and water quality for our community and communities across Somerset.  We also feel that in the short, medium and long term coal bed methane extraction and fracking are not sustainable sources of energy”.

HKD Transition, an initiative covering the villages of Hassocks, Hurstpierpoint, Keymer and Ditching in Sussex, ran a piece by member Felicity Tanous condemning fracking, but stressed it represented her own point of view.  Transition Lancaster in the US went on their own fracking fact-finding mission.  They write: 

“Concerned citizens from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, trek up to Northern PA to witness natural gas rigs, well pads, storage facilities, and transport trucks in action. They visit with fellow Pennsylvanian land owners effected by the drilling and subsequent contamination of local waterways and diminishing air quality; who are standing up for their constitutional and human rights to clean air and clean water”. 

They made a video about the trip too:


Transition Network serves to represent the views and opinions of Transition initiatives.  So is it safe to assume that all Transition initiatives are opposed to fracking like those mentioned above?  Not necessarily.  There is as yet no survey or research on this.  The only thing I have been able to find was an online poll run by Transition Buckingham.  Here are the results. 

Transition Buckingham fracking vote

If it is the case that 21% of those involved in Transition think there might be some merit in discussing fracking as an option, where does that leave Transition Network and an ‘official view’ on fracking?

A Transition Network stance

Can it be said that there is a view on the issue within Transition Network?  Perhaps the best place to start in considering this is the following, taken from Transition Network’s most recent Annual Report which sets out our founding thinking in relation to fossil fuels and their extraction. 

“Our original analysis that we have reached the end of the age of cheap energy has held up very well.  A recent report by the Ministry of Defence (2012) warned of the depletion of cheap, conventional, ‘easy oil’ and rocketing oil prices, predicting oil prices of $500 a barrel by 2040.  A peer-reviewed paper in the journal EOS by James Murray and Jim Hansen (2013) stated that crude oil production has been on a plateau since 2005, with older fields now declining at 5% a year.  

What hope that unconventional fossil fuels can fill the gap?  While there is much hype, a study by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2013) found that “these shale oil and shale gas resource estimates are highly uncertain and will remain so until they are extensively tested with production wells”.   

Central to Transition Network’s analysis is the reality that extraction techniques such as unconventional gas are only viable because oil prices are high, indeed the fact that expensive, difficult approaches such as shale gas are now seen as ushering in a new ‘Golden Age of Gas’, are as clear an indicator as we could wish for that the age of cheap energy is now well and truly over.  The idea that it is a ‘bridge fuel’ to a low carbon economy, as President Obama stated in his speech on climate change, is also an argument in ribbons. As journalist George Monbiot put it recently, “using shale gas as a ‘bridge’ to a low-carbon economy is like using chocolate fudge cake as a bridge to a low-calorie diet.” 

In terms of climate change, the fact remains that, as the International Energy Agency (2013) warned recently, the world is currently on a path that will lead to between a 3.6°C and 5.3°C rise in global temperature.  PricewaterhouseCoopers (2012) have warned that “even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century”.  Climate scientist James Hansen notes that even if just one-third of known fossil fuel reserves are exploited, catastrophic runaway climate change is guaranteed.  

The Carbon Tracker report Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets argues that the next stock market bubble is being created; a carbon bubble. It assesses that 80% of the carbon already ‘booked’ on fossil fuel company accounts cannot be burned if we are to limit global temperature rises to 2°C over pre industrial levels. The report urges fund managers and financial regulators to question planned spending of over $600 billion per year for the next decade by fossil fuel companies in finding and developing more carbon based fuels, if we can’t burn the ones we already know about.   

The Transition perspective has always been, and remains, that an economy able to actually stay below 2°C and which has some degree of resilience to energy shortages or price spikes, needs to go far beyond changing lightbulbs and introducing more efficient vehicles.  What we need is a fast response programme of breaking our addiction to fossil fuels, and of building resilience to shocks, and of seeing both as an historic opportunity for creativity, entrepreneurship and bringing communities back together.

Perhaps from this we might extract a checklist of questions we might like to ask of a new extraction technology such as fracking. 

  • Will it exacerbate climate change?  Will it add more fossil fuels to the ‘pile’ of burnable carbon at a time when we need to urgently cutting emissions?
  • Is it helping us build renewable energy infrastructure?
  • Does it move us closer towards, or further away from, a global agreement on putting a cap on emissions?
  • Does it involve externalities (pollution, environmental damage, unintended impacts) that someone other than the resource-extracting company will have to pay for?
  • What is the impact on local resilience, both economic and ecological?
  • What is the impact from a social justice perspective?
  • Does the decision to use or not use any given fuel or technology include an analysis of the power relationships of those involved? (i.e. the power of large fossil fuel companies to influence government policy)
  • Does it form a decisive part of the push towards the kind of more socially just, fair, resilient future we so urgently need to see?

Ultimately, for me it boils down to this graph, redrawn from Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark’s new book The Burning Question, which clearly sets out the amount of potential carbon emissions are contained in the world’s known reserves, and the amount we can safely burn if we are serious about staying below 2 degrees.   

Burning question graph

The ‘50% safety’ refers to an approach (which is the UK government’s position) to staying below 2 degrees rise in temperatures which carries a 50% risk that we will go over 2 degrees (think playing Russian Roulette with bullets in half the chambers), and ‘75% safety’ to a 25% risk of going over (bullets in a quarter of the chambers).  Both give a clear sense of the scale of the challenge, and how rather than extracting more fossil fuels we need to be leaving them in the ground as a matter of huge urgency.  If that doesn’t seem challenging enough, a new report suggests that even those scenarios might be an underestimate. 

In response to the questions asked above, it is clear that fracking unlocks new fossil fuels at a time when, globally, they are the last thing we need.  Will shale gas reduce emissions?  The experience from the US is that although it has brought down US gas prices and carbon emissions (to their lowest point since 1992), it has also led to a boom in coal use around the world, up from 25% of the world’s energy mix to 30%, the highest level since 1969.  The US using less coal led to flooding of the global markets with cheap coal, and the world economy responded accordingly, burning as much of it as it could.  Whatever new fossil fuels are put into the world will get burnt.  

Is it correct to say that shale gas can be a ‘bridge fuel’ because it has lower emissions than coal?  Not necessarily.  According to the first comprehensive study of emissions from shale gas published in the journal Climatic Change:

“The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”

It should be pointed out though that this study is challenged by another study that produced lower figures for methane leaks.  It also appears to be moving us further away from a renewable energy economy, as investment and public support goes into tax breaks for fracking companies, and the political opinion, in the UK at least, is that we can get back to a growth economy powered by shale gas.   Does it move us closer to a global agreement on emissions?  It wouldn’t appear so.  Does it involve externalities? The experience from the US is that it does, whether it’s groundwater pollution, pollution from the high number of lorry trips it necessitates, the disposal of the toxic waste water and so on.  The recent flooding in Colorado highlights the difficulties of always being able to deal with toxic substances in a reliable way.  

The impact on local resilience, both economic and ecological is still unknown.  It could be argued that the £100,000 being offered to communities where drilling takes place could help to make communities more resilient, but it’s not going to go far, most likely would result in non resilience-building expenditure, and wouldn’t even come close to clearing up potential pollution.  From a social justice perspective shale gas extraction is conducted by large companies, creates little work, and leaves those with least economic clout to live with what it leaves behind (as the film Gasland so powerfully highlighted).  Although it is being argued by some that fracking will lead to lower bills, there is little evidence of that. Lord Stern recently said:

“It’s a bit odd to say you know that it will bring the price of gas down. That doesn’t look like sound economics to me. It’s baseless economics.”

Stern’s view is supported by the International Energy Agency and Deutsche Bank.  So all in all, it looks like fracking isn’t something that comes up well in response to the questions we might ask of it.  

Closing thoughts

Where does that leave Transition?  At present, Transition Network itself takes a position that leans towards opposing shale gas and fracking for the reasons set out above.  However, we are delighted to see that there is meaningful debate around these issues, and would wish to represent the views of those on the ground doing Transition, informed by the best evidence available.  The Surrey Advertiser quoted Nick Wright as saying:

“All we’ve said is we’re not absolutely convinced that shale gas is unequivocally a bad thing.  It might be a medium-term solution to the growing energy crisis in this country”. 

If Transition initiatives feel that they are able to argue that fracking can contribute positively to the transition to a low carbon and fossil fuel-free future, then that is absolutely a debate that needs to take place.  Rather than just taking a dogmatic position that just dismisses the very idea out of hand without debate, we salute Transition Dorking in calling for a discussion around the idea that fracking “is unequivocally a bad thing”.  It is to be celebrated that the Transition movement is sufficiently broad that people with a range of views on the subject feel able to come together at the local level to try and do their bit in the push to make fossil fuels of all kinds, and the damage they cause, a thing of the past. 

In the past, energy generation and extraction is something that tended to happen ‘out there’: out in the North Sea; in distant nuclear power stations; in mining communities.  One of the features of how rapidly our energy situation is changing is how energy generation is coming closer to home.  If we have to live closer to our energy sources, would we rather they were wind, solar or fracking?  Or perhaps one of Stewart Brand’s community scale nuclear power plants (which he once told me could be about the size of a postbox and funded through a community share option).  We need to decide one way or another, rather than just rejecting them all out of hand.  

If a conformity of opinion is expected with regards to fracking, should we expect, for example, that all Transition initiatives will also be completely opposed to GM?  To all new supermarket developments under all circumstances?  To always be in favour of every wind turbine application?  Do we want Transition to be like Greenpeace where local groups are informed of what the new campaign is and sent all the materials they need in order to argue it?  As Nick Wright told me:

“I am very keen on Transition Dorking being a broad church.  There would be a danger, especially in this part of the country, of being typecast as an arm of the Green Party (not that I’m opposed to the Green Party, they do an awful lot of good things) but we are not part of the Green Party.  We include people who would be politically aligned in lots of different directions.  We try to include people of all ages, from teenagers to retirement age, we want to be inclusive.  By being inclusive it includes people like me who have an industry background, and don’t see any contradiction in that.  

In the pursuit of trying to build a cross-community consensus on the need for community resilience and wellbeing, there is a strong argument that part of the power in that lies in not doing what is expected, not unquestioningly conforming to “green” expectations.  The ability to do this has been one of the things that has, for example, enabled the recent Local Economic Blueprints to happen, and for Transition to have grown at the speed it has.  I hope this piece will generate a lively debate and discussion, and we’d love to hear your views.