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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.

Reaction

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. 

Comments

Jo Homan's picture

opinions

sometimes I wonder why we all expected to have a position on something, when there's lots of things we haven't really had to think about much. To me fracking instinctively seems like a Bad Idea but we should be allowed to talk about it without feeling that we're not reflecting transition. I expect Nick agrees with many of the views of the anti-fracking lobby but it sounds like he's saying it's the lesser of two evils. I suppose the question for me would be; Will we achieve our vision of zero carbon if we compromise our expectations? Should we be insisting on the radical change to lifestyle now, without accepting medium-term damage of fracking? (And how would we insist, anyway?)

Biff Vernon's picture

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

We at Transition Louth have been thinking globally and are now acting locally, opposing planning permission for an oil well at Biscathorpe that could lead to fracking the gas-rich shales that underlie much of Lincolnshire.  There are many reasons to oppose such plans on grounds of harm to the local environment, but it is global warming that is our biggest concern.

In order to stand a fighting chance of a survivable global temperature rise, we must use no more than the already proven conventional reserves.  The supply constraint that peak conventional oil poses, gives us the incentive to reduce the economy's carbon intensity, by whatever means - efficiency, renewables, TEQs etc.

If we allow production of unconventional hydrocarbons then we're certainly doomed.  It is alarming how many good folk still don't take global warmng seriously enough to oppose all exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons.  We can make all the energy savings we like but it will have zero effect on greenhouse gasses when others will burn the carbon we don't.  It is supply that must be constrained.  By stopping an oil or gas well being developed we stop millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses reaching the atmosphere.

Is there a 'Transition position' on fracking?  It is completely up to local groups to decide how they will act locally, but global thinking on global warming is central to the Transition thinking.

Mick Mack's picture

What is essentially at odds with this question on fracking.

What is essentialy at odds here IMO is that we have a concept - Transitioning - which has basic notions that it aspires to. Let's call that general heading sustainability - which is perceived as needing to have its own local character because every location is different - though it's dealing with a world which is global in practise and when one or more local groups have their own response as to how we should achieve that sustainability then this is where we get divergence, which is not a problem when dealing with seemlingly innocuous matters such as planting a new orchard and although "accepting medium-term damage of fracking" has no validity in logic at all because for one thing nobody and I mean nobody has any notion of how long fracking might be used, if it is used, in this country, and so that phrase is meaningless. What we have is a more 'conservative' element that is more "realistic", isn't prepared to take on this battle and ends up siding with corporate ecological degradation, regardless of their intent. This is the nature of such a 'movement' if I might call it that. Without a centrally decided position democratically mandated then what you have is lots of different people who because of their own subjective perspective of the world will give lots of different opinoins and courses of action. One can agree on the science and even the economics of it perhaps, but when people perceive different political tactics to serious questions then what you get is a swamp of opinion. Unless the 'Transition Movement' addresses this fundamental question this will be the first of many serious challenges as the hard-edge of a desperate capitalist economy that is wholly ruthless and will not be dissuaded from its course comes up against ANY opposition, of any persuasion, then it will be shattered, fragmented and left behind in the wake of the social upheaval that we are transitioning through.

Joanna's picture

Bringing energy extraction home

Your comment "If we have to live closer to our energy sources, would we rather they were wind, solar or fracking?" says it all to me. When we bring the energy extraction closer to home, instead of expecting others to put up with the eyesore/mess, then we might start to think a bit more sensibly on how we want to obtain our energy.

Dave Jackson's picture

Fracking

Totally agree Joanna.

PV should be mandatory on all new build. It should also be added to all council housing. This should be on top of energy efficiency measures to make all new builds carbon neutral once built.

Mark Brown's picture

Fracking can be discussed as adults for that is what we are

My hat of to Nick Wright for his refreshing views and to the open-mindedness of Rob in writing another smashing blog. I can actually say that Transition Town High Wycombe beat Dorking to the post by an entire year when we published a blog called "Fracking in the Aylesbury Vale" in August 2012 on the web site of our local newspaper: http://www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/yoursay/opinion/blogs/transtown/9884551.Fracking_in_the_Aylesbury_Vale/ In the blog we discussed what kind of vision we had for our nation's energy future? Twice we wrote "We shouldn’t be alarmist." We go on to say "we need not  necessarily imagine the worse. It is quite easy to imagine how the occasional drilling derrick in our countryside might be considered by some to be the least-of-all-evils." Of course fracking was on nobody's agenda back in 2012 an entire year before Balcombe - so nobody in the media - least of all the BBC - picked it up.

So the answer (for me) is that NO we do not want to be like Greenpeace, the Green party or Friends of the Earth and have policy set centrally. We do not want a position to slavishly follow today's trendy green dogma. As an example our blog has defended a "big box" store moving into an empty retail unit in High Wycombe on the basis that it provided a valuable service previously unavailable locally. We need to use common sense and not adopt an "anti-everything" approach. We must, as Nick rightly says, live in the 'real world'. Because it is in the 'real world' that every non-Transitioner lives. If we are to reach out to them then we have to understand them. Otherwise we preach dogma to the converted. That wouldn't be Transition. Not by a long shot.... and it wouldn't be very effective. We need to be credible and open-minded.

Philip Leicester's picture

Maintaining Carbon Lock-in and the Opportunity Costs

The position taken up by Transition Dorking, the  ‘local energy’ argument is compelling. UK produced shale gas, it can be argued, does enhance our energy security (we have more direct control over the resource), and may help with resilience (ability to deal with shocks, more often price), though the latter assertion is not clear cut given the way markets work - i.e. despite being local it goes into a wider international market and is priced accordingly. This is why Cameron’s assertion it will give us cheaper fuel has been heavily criticised by various academics.

The point raised in one comment about a potential influence on energy attitudes and behaviour by local fracking operations is interesting - i.e. the notion this may convince more of us that we need clean energy. We should be more aware of the environmental consequences of our fossil fuel addiction, other than climate change, which are unseen by us occurring elsewhere on the planet. One only has to consider the ‘oil rivers’ in the Niger Delta to appreciate this. So perhaps such manifest physical consequences should be felt closer to home in order to make us more accepting of cleaner alternatives. However I'm not sure about the efficacy of this driver given where the balance of power and influence lies. As in the Niger Delta, local communities may not have much influence over big oil and their DECC embedded ‘advisors’. And perhaps Osborne’s promise of a community windfall will drive public acceptance, just as many of us hope it might, for onshore wind.

For me however, there is one big principle, namely that if we burn even a fraction of all currently known reserves, we're fried. We should not be discovering new ones. As well as this important 'leave it in the ground principle', there are two further issues:

The first is the concept of carbon lock-in. We are socio-technically locked in to a high carbon society (Unruh 2000) . Everything, from soft infrastructure (investment portfolios, insurance, knowledge) and hard infrastructure (transport, power systems, refineries, storage facilities) is geared up for fossil carbon. This means that that the low carbon economy not only has to compete on a pure energy cost basis, but suffers from a lack of hard and soft infrastructure. In short all the assets are locked into the carbon economy, ready and waiting at its disposal. The playing field is not level. New technologies have to compete to create supply chains, business acumen and the rest. This is a huge hurdle to overcome and is one of the strongest arguments for subsidy. Back in 1926, when the emerging technology was the mass owned motor vehicle, Winston Churchill recognised that the benefit to UK PLC would be enormous if all tax payers subsidised road building – the national infrastructure for motoring. Today, to drive the adoption of renewable energy, market instruments such as the renewables obligation (RO), FiTs and RHI are necessary to level the playing field until the systems of innovation for new clean technologies are fully formed. And even this pathway is not as smooth as it could be (Foxon 2005). This takes years and has to start yesterday. Perpetuating carbon lock-in with new high-carbon economy infrastructure for hard to reach fossil fuels will not help the UK energiewende (energy transition).

The German term I use deliberately because it embodies not just a technological transition, but a narrative; it frames a debate. A transition is being made – they might not be absolutely sure how it will look but it is nevertheless happening. It takes years for such a narrative to evolve and now with literally thousands of stakeholders in renewables it is difficult to reverse. The lock is being undone and a new cleaner one forged. In contrast the UK fracking industry, by maintaining the carbon narrative is keeping us in carbon shackles.

The second issue is related to the first but speaks to economists. This is the ‘opportunity cost’ of fracking. This is a simple idea that in thinking about the cost of doing something, we also have to think about the additional cost by virtue of the fact we are not doing something else. These costs may not be purely financial. Thus by entertaining and pursuing fracking we are forgoing the development of renewables and this is a very real cost – it is delaying a transition to cheap clean energy – something of very real value and meanwhile keeping us focussed on something which ultimately, we have to wean ourselves off. The costs may be huge as we miss out on early development of innovations which could create a lot of employment, create new knowledge and skills and drive exports for the UK economy.

What must be clearly understood, of course, by all opponents of fracking is that there has to be a bridging energy vector. And gas is notionally less carbon intensive than coal if we accept the idea of methane emission is contested. My contention is that if instead of fracking we insist we use known gas reserves whilst we undertake a rapid low carbon energy transition the opportunity cost incurred by fracking are avoided and we begin to reverse carbon lock-in. Ultimately we should measure opportunity costs in terms of Forum for the Future’s five capitals model to truly reflect the damage the fracking trajectory could cause (FfF 2013). Since to overcome carbon lock-in we need to develop social, human, manufactured and financial capital in the green economy. The opportunity cost to Fracking is a failure to begin to develop these capitals in time and as #IPCC5 will again show this week, it’s getting very urgent.

------------------

REFERENCES

FfF 2013 http://www.forumforthefuture.org/project/five-capitals/overview retrieved 25-Sep-2013

Foxon  2005 UK innovation systems for new and renewable energy technologies: drivers, barriers and systems failures Energy Policy 33 (2005) 2123–2137 T.J. Foxon,  R. Gross, A. Chase, J. Howes, A. Arnall, D. Anderson

Unruh 2000 - Gregory C. Unruh Understanding carbon lock-in, Energy Policy 28 (2000) 817

 

 

Michael Dunwell's picture

A Fracking policy for Transition?

Thank you everyone for a sane discussion;  I have not read a better in any other forum.   Transition Network sets a list of questions to ask the fracking lobby that will be almost impossible to answer satisfactorily.  We could leave it at that.

 

 

Philip.Barnes's picture

The Political Economy of Energy

This is a fascinating discussion and one that I think clearly demonstrates Transition's political maturation.  Energy policy and the political economy of energy is such a massively important topic for our future that we need to be having debates like these more often.

Rob asks the very sensible and value-rational questions about any energy source:

  • 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?

When he does, he identifies criteria for judging energy policy: resilience, social justice, power relations.  Too often, energy policy decisions get made on an economic and efficiency calculus.  It is refreshing to see these questions asked of any energy policy.

Let us not forget that energy descent, consuming less of the stuff, is an energy policy that we as communities can implement on our own.  It is essential to engage in a debate about the energy that we must use and where it comes from, but the more we are able to scale back consumption of energy in the first place, the less important that debate becomes.  Coupled with that claim, I would also add that energy, on its own, is useless to us.  What is useful and valuable are the energy services that we derive from consuming energy.  In my opinion, this is why reskilling is so important to the Transition model, because it replaces those externally derived energy services that are likely fossil fueled with internally derived services.

pauline cory's picture

video

Thanks for posting this Mike, excellent little video that very nicely illustrates my argument.

Corinne Coughanowr's picture

EROEI

Excellent post, debate and comments. I greatly appreciate all the pertinent information and interesting viewpoints, in particular the concepts of carbon lock-in and lost opportunity costs. One issue I have not seen addressed is EROEI: energy return on energy invested. It appears that if this drops below a ratio of 3 : 1, then the extraction of the fuel in question becomes economically unviable. It would be good to know what is the estimated EROEI for fracked gas (including all externalities), as well as some realistic projections for the volume of gas expected from each drilling site. Keeping in mind that the resources and energy needed for each site are substantial (never mind the ecological issues), it seems like, just from an economic perspective, a lot of the proposed fracking projects might not pass muster.

pauline cory's picture

Fracking debate

Whilst applauding diversity and the right to express differing opinions, what disturbs me greatly about the whole fracking debate is when someone comes up to me at a Transition meeting and says "I hear the Transition movement supports fracking" and that this is how it is being interpreted by those who have not thoroughly read all the comments on this blog.

I understand all the arguments but, to me, Transition is about moving away from fossil fuels, supporting localism and sustainable practices - which entail producing local energy (like Lewes), growing our own food, breathing clean air, being able to drink local water and having enough of it for all our needs and living a vibrant, healthy existence.  If we keep doing the same old things in the same old ways we just get more of the same and any support for fossil fuels is heading down the old familiar slippery slope.

Fracking is one of the dirtiest forms of fossil fuels both in its extraction and processing. It not only uses toxic chemicals in the drilling process, wastes phenomenal amounts of precious clean water turning it into an even more toxic return fluid (which by then also includes heavy metals) that then has to be stored safely indefinitely, but poisons the air with gas flares and very heavy traffic, destroys large area of countryside (one well is only productive for a couple of years) and totally disrupts any community (I have visited Balcombe and spoken to some of the residents who are desperate to get Cuadrilla out of their area once and for all) and often brings down the price of one's property.  If you don't believe me, speak to someone who has worked in this industry or someone who has lived through the nightmare of having this inflicted on their land, only then can you understand what this really means. When and if fracking hits your local community all the intellectual arguments go out the window.

Until 4 months ago, like most people, I had no real idea what fracking was and what it entailed and so I have tried to become as informed as I can be, because it is coming very close to home.  I have done around a hundred hours of research (including speaking to people who have been directly affected) and to say that there are agencies in this country who will ensure this practice is safe is naive to say the least. Our local agencies in Sussex don't haven't a clue what is going on, there is documented evidence of that.  

If this practice is even to be allowed to go ahead as an experiment (for that is what it is - to my knowledge it has never been carried out in densely populated areas such as West Sussex) - all of the above concerns, and many more, need to be addressed adequately, because at the moment they are not.  But, better still, I would rather there was a European ban on fracking so that tax breaks and investment went where it really needs to go.

 

 

 

James Young's picture

Do you really believe or not?

Great discussion. I'm from the US so some may feel Transition Dorking isn't my fight, but as you know, we're no-good rabble rousers over here. Also, bear with me as I wrestle with this thing called the English language.

What's interesting to me is not so much the question on fracking as the question of how does Transition keep its 'soul' when it's designed as a non-hierarchical movement? Rob can certainly lead and be the official unofficial voice, but by design he does not speak for individual groups and what about the future when he's not around (not that we're already digging his grave, just hypothetically speaking).

It's inevitable as Transition gets bigger and more inclusive that you will start to get more people favoring those so-called lesser evils such as fracking. In their language, it is so much more "realistic" than attempting what hasn't been done before, namely, going 100% solar (which includes wind, tidal, and hydroelectric to my mind).

It is easy to mistake 'realistic' with the word 'possible' and to think the only possibilities are those things that already exist. But, it's absurd to think a change to solar is not possible when we live in a world of constant change and one where not only does solar exist but the cost of photovoltaics is on course to be cheaper than coal in just a few years. And more good news, it's still a new technology with years of improvements in efficiency and cost reductions still to be gleaned. So, to call fracking the solution for a 'realistic' world is a cop out and simply untrue.

At the center of this debate is a very difficult Inner Transition that we're dealing with, not an economic, ecological, or logistics problem. For all intents and purposes, Transition means giving up so much of everything we (those in the developed world) take for granted every day in our energy-intense lifestyles.

So when Nick Wright says, "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", he is revealing his belief, his acceptance, that people will be unable to give up their modern day, energy-intense lifestyle. "Unless we do something", indeed.

However, giving up these many modern things is a necessary component to fully Transition. In fact, it is central to Transition. It can't be done any other way. To not accept that, to think we can continue on like this, same lifestyle but different power source, well, from there the back-sliding begins and that is the true problem.

The lack of a clear-cut, uncompromising decision that we're really going to do this, that we really have to do this, that is the crux of the problem. Transition doesn't need to talk about fracking because that is a part of our 'reality' that we are trying to break away from. By current evidence it looks like solar will take care of itself as market forces are already propelling it to be the energy source of the future, cheaper than coal.

However, the lack of Inner Transition, the part where we decide we must give up a lot of what we have to get us to a sustainable level, is the kicker. Transition can be fun and I really love the visioning of a future more connected, more local, and more sane than the present, but Transition is not a hobby. There will be some real sacrifices and are we ready to deal with it mentally? Are we going to decide to prepare or are we going to wait for the decision to be made for us by calamity?

Finding a way to convince people that Transition is 100% necessary, that it is the paramount challenge of ours and coming generations, that is the true dilemma facing us. Transition needs conviction to go along with the scientific evidence; to have it come from the heart as well as the head, in Transition parlance. To frack or not to frack is NOT the question. The question is: how do we get everyone to believe, heart and soul, what the scientific evidence is telling us before it becomes physical evidence that is killing us?

James McLaren's picture

The art of the possible

Quoth James Young:

So when Nick Wright says, "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", he is revealing his belief, his acceptance, that people will be unable to give up their modern day, energy-intense lifestyle. "Unless we do something", indeed.

No. Not so.

This is about the art of the possible. Present people with you must give up everything now, and you will take no-one with you, and Transition will fizzle out into a sad little bunch of cranks like many movements before it. Present people with start making small but real reductions now and build on the reductions, and you might take people along with you. The more that you can demonstrate that a Transitioned lifestyle is the normal choice, not what the screwballs and hippies do, the more the movement will achieve. But that is going to take time unless the political climate changes - and Transition is not set up to push for political change - and in the case of gas or coal the decision cannot easily be put off.

 

James Young's picture

RE: the art of the possible

Hi James McLaren,

I'm happy that you agree with my main point that this is Inner Transition that we're talking about. There certainly is an art to the psychology of change. Part of that is being inclusive of a broad range of people instead of villifying or belittling them. I certainly think Nick Wright and all the good people of Transition Dorking are entitled to their opinions on fracking. If they want to frack their countryside, if they feel that the benefits outweigh the costs, then I hope it is done with sincere examination of their long term goals and inclusive of all parties affected. I wish them the best.

However, I would not raise their opinions as superior to the sad cranks, screwballs, and hippies you refer to either. After all, many of those people have shown it's possible to pull completely off the grid and that's very admirable. They demonstrate knowledge and leadership. Of all the people doing something about this, they are; that makes us the failed party.

At any rate, it is not my point that we must give up everything now. Neither is it my point that we need to give up many fundamental things now to avoid a future that is very challenging and painful which is what the science is telling us.

My point is that if a person does not address the Inner Transition, it's going to cause you to act against your own best interests. And that's a problem I see everywhere, myself included.

Those who believe in science and fact-based decisions find ourselves in a surreal dichotomy. We live in a world of technology, made possible by the scientific method and study of the physical world, and yet the message from the world's climate scientists about the end of climate normality and the beginning of some painful times is being resoundingly ignored.

Rob had a posting recently where the USA Today he was reading simultaneously carried articles on the increasing havoc from climate change placed side by side with an article about Saturn being full of diamonds and maybe NASA should go there to pick some up.

In other words, Transition's main challenge is figuring out this invisible wall that's blocking common sense from taking hold and powering the change we need. Not politically speaking, but grass roots, everyday people. There's massive latent energy to tap into.

Your suggestion is to take small steps and sneak up on it. I don't disagree with that. That is the current system in place for Transition and it is working. But, if we're still learning how to darn socks while our house is floating away on the 3rd millennial flood of the year, that's a problem. My hope is that there is a better way if we address the inner change that must precede action. I don't have the answers, that's why I'm commenting.

Peter Harrison's picture

EROEI and renewables

Corinne has raised a very important point. It prompts my question: has the EROEI ratio been calculated for any of the renewable energy sources? As a result of a survey that I did over 20 years ago (which did not consider the ratio) I suspect that this ratio is far lower for all renewables than it is for fossil fuel sources. A bigger drawback with renewables is that the energy invested for them occurs mainly during the provision of materials and the process of construction. In contrast, for fossil-fueled energy sources, a high proportion of the invested energy occurs over the life-time of the plant.This could mean that if we concentrate exclusively on replacing old fossil fuel generators with renewable energy sources there will be a large spike in energy demand and, hence, carbon emissions. This could lead to a serious irreversible climate tipping event. Far better to play safe and have a procedure to introduce renewables gently by having shale gas as a bridging source.An added benefit is that this will give time for James Young's improvements to give higher EROEIs. I fully agree with James' final two sentences but, as James McLaren says, we need to start small, which means that Transition will take a while to make a significant impact. So fracking might be required for this reason as well.

Anna2's picture

Nick Wright's letter

As someone currently heavily involved in raising local awareness on this issue I am appalled at some aspects of Nick Wright's letter and would like to see it removed from the net and certainly any transition websites, as this page is currently doing tremendous damage to the work of other transition people around the world who are spending many long hours right now trying to expose the truths on fracking in order to educate the general public before a planning application lands on their parish council doormat post the current government licensing round that ends 28th March 2014. 

 What concerns me the most is this section :

"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

I have seen almost these exact word for word statements in print and being bandied around by pro-fracking oil industry people and UK politicians who know that this statement is a play on the facts, but is actually very far from the facts! I strongly question Nick Wright's motivation behind his letter? and also I wonder how many other transition members were actually involved in the writing of the above letter? 

Frankly I am tired of seeing politicians with ulterior motives constantly mis-use the term 'best practice'. There is NO such thing with fracking. ALL WELLS WILL LEAK. 

Firstly there is NO adequate current regulation, as the technology of this 'new style fracking' (with chemicals) is BRAND NEW in the UK, and has NOT been done for "many years" as quoted above, this has NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE in the UK. Unless we count the 1(and only) time so far that a well in the UK has been 'fracked' which has resulted in permanent irrepairable internal damage to the well by the earthquakes that it caused which resulted in a ban on fracking in UK until more is known : http://stopfyldefracking.org.uk/

SO this new type fracking is yet to be regulated correctly. See the current EA consultation : https://consult.environment-agency.gov.uk/portal/ho/ep/src/no10/standard...

At the moment the UK government are allowing offshore! and existing(old) conventional oil & gas regulation to be used, which relate to entirely different operations and are not comparable.

I strongly suggest that Nick Wright visits Balcombe and meets members of the residents association who will put him straight on a few of the facts : 

http://www.lewes.co.uk/forum/post/Open_letter_from_Balcombe_residents_to...

Whilst I agree that the above letter IS well written, it is also far from 'a balanced argument' and needs to be removed from this website and replaced with a more accurate current article.

I would suggest instead featuring the excellent article by Mark Brown referred to above, which is both still currently accurate and also forward thinking, which is highly impressive given that it was written a few years ago now!

http://www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/yoursay/opinion/blogs/transtown/9884551....

All transition members need to get educated on unconventional energy, and fast! :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmr_ETzjGCA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSWmXpEkEPg

http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/web/Marcellus.html

http://pennsylvaniaallianceforcleanwaterandair.wordpress.com/the-list/