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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 Culture

2 Comments on "Is there a ‘Transition position’ on fracking?"

  1. BillT on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 2:50 pm 

    Transition will not matter if we run up the temperature of Mother Earth with hydrocarbons trying to make ‘renewables’ that are truly NOT renewable. Better we just cut off the unnecessary use of all hydrocarbons now. Of course that is not going to happen, so we are doomed to extinction in this century.

    What is ‘not necessary’? Go to your local mall and see that 95% to 99% of what you see is NOT a necessity. The mall itself is not necessary. Go into a typical store anywhere and ypou will see the same results 95% to 99% is NOT a necessity. THOSE are the things that should go, and will as oil gets too expensive ot make/transport them, and people get too poor to buy them. Malls are closing now and the closures are gaining speed. Watch when WalMarts start to downsize and/or close. Then the end is near.

  2. GregT on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 5:31 am 

    ” So is it safe to assume that all Transition initiatives are opposed to fracking like those mentioned above? Not necessarily.”

    I would have to agree with this statement. There are certain ‘transition networks’, that would prefer that we transition to extinction. Some people honestly believe that the Earth would be better off without us.

    Myself, I still haven’t entirely made up my mind.

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