One of the great myths remaining about UK shale gas is that public opposition will make it impossible to develop.
As someone active in the shale debate UK and worldwide for eight years, I've learnt one of the first things we need to do with objectors is to take a psychological approach: What do you fear exactly? Why do you feel this way? What have you heard or read that worries you? Do you feel this way because your friends do? But it’s not just them. It’s time to put investors and regulators on the couch too.
The reality of the debate proves public opposition is a minority interest. A very small minority. But that minority has a Napoleon complex which intimidates otherwise rational people (investors, politicians, regulators) into symptoms not dissimilar to Stockholm Syndrome :
Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes "strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other." One commonly used hypothesis to explain the effect of Stockholm syndrome is based on Freudian theory. It suggests that the bonding is the individual's response to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself. When a victim believes the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be perceived as a threat.
The anti minority power, such as it is, over victims, is to make out they are a majority.In the world of (anti) Social Media fracktivists magnify their impact to each other - and often to the press.Today’s world is one where we often don’t know our next door neighbours, yet anti shale “community protectors” trust the opinion of someone the other side of the planet who once liked them on Facebook.To those who live in one particular echo chamber, their self-importance, or not, tends to be biased.
It’s fairly easy to analyse social media and uncover UK anti tactics, Friends of the Earth having written the book on this. They’ve set up Twitter and Facebook groups in parts of the UK that have as much chance of being explored for shale gas as Venus. That not only presents a false picture of actual community interest in the subject, it also energises the national and international base while providing an allegedly local base which then acts as a centre of “expertise” fed into the local press. For the collection of has beens or wannabes at (unfortunately) dying UK local papers, it’s vital that the story includes a variation on “Local man says”. That’s been particularly true in the local press in Lancashire, where local men or women who invariably are members of the tiny local Green Party or Friends of the Earth, or both, were quoted at length by local papers, until recently even to the exclusion of outsiders like the Prime Minister or anyone else not blessed by local connection.
(There’s an excellent recent piece in the Guardian on the UK press, which reveals among other things that a trainee reporter gets a salary of £14K or $20,700. It’s not a salary that will keep the best and brightest, and reflects the parlous state of the media industry. It also ensures a certain amount of self censorship with an eye for any future press officer posts at Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace, which start at £33K. In the UK media, it’s a small, but profitable, step to writing press releases from re-writing them.)
In social media, everyone can hear you scream - and rant. When you’re ranting to the already converted, they then “like” or retweet - or amplify their importance to those outside the group. Analysis of social media we've seen shows the alleged tens of thousands of UK opponents are only a hard core minority of two thousand present in multiple groups, all with significant international cross-over. Antis from all over are also present on local UK Twitter feeds and Facebook groups, often breathlessly promising solidarity to one another
The tactic also influences some supporters of shale. I know there are several readers who should also perhaps get a life and stop exaggerating the influence of shale opponents. In that regard, much of the industry makes the same error of magnifying the influence of a minority.
This week saw the speedy end to the portentous, and ominously named, Upton Community Protection Camp. This was the IGAS site near Chester that would allegedly be the epitome of people’s democracy. We had the usual bizarre alliance of anti capitalist protestors scaring local senior citizens into thinking property values would fall, and the narrative was accompanied by hyperbolic bluster that produced several megawatts of hot air. This would be the week where hundreds of local democracy defenders would bury themselves underground, predicting weeks of non violent protest. The reality is that it was all over in 7 hours and the local press could barely muster interest.The national press ignored it.Thirteen people were arrested, 11 from outside the area. So much for that.
What is measurable is something old fashioned but with new tools: Votes and petition signatures. Signing a petition in the street is almost worthless in measuring actual strength, almost as bad as opinion polls on line. In Lancashire last year, the majority of those who petitioned the County Council came from outside Lancashire, including many from overseas. Votes as 2015 results showed, are more valuable, reflecting the giant yawn voters gave any anti fracking candidate. Let’s not forget last May:
In short, we have a "social license to operate" the old fashioned way, by winning elections. Gone is the biggest zombie fact of UK shale, that the public will run in horror from it. However, noisy and irksome the antis will continue to be, we have to remind not only ourselves, but planning officers and councillors too, of the lesson that will be obvious to the national government and MPs: there isn't a whole bunch going on here. Time to move on.
But otherwise sane people are still intimidated. Surprisingly, some are even lawyers:
Countering the presence of such a seemingly perfect canvas on which to create a new industry is a very vocal and well supported local movement against the industry before it has commenced therefore it is likely that these opposite forces will come to a head during 2016.
Vocal is accurate, but analysis of the actual support says otherwise.We not only have election results from Lancashire where the issue made no difference either way, we have two petitions on the UK Parliament web site. The site can be gamed, but if used honestly, it's only open to single signings by actual voters, although it's not checked against registered voters. There are over two thousand petitions and some against fracking. There's even one for. The most current is this one
Lancashire County Council overwhelmingly voted against fracking in Lancashire. The Conservative Government is now over ruling local democracies and allowing one man, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to decide on this. Local Councils should decide, not one man.
Yet that petition has only 4,536 signatories, even if it does have another four and a half month to run. But another petition expiring soon has only garnered a small fraction of support in almost six months
Scrap Fracking UK Wide & Invest in Green Energy
(Update January 17:Thanks to either a last minute surge, or my efforts, over two days the petition increased to 41,113 by January 22. It needs 100,000 to be considered and has until Friday 22 January to reach it. I would also add that the petition question presents a false binary choice, between natural gas and Green Energy. As grown ups in both the renewable, climate and gas industry are well aware, it's not either or, it's both as the US experience proves).
A look through the petitions finds three concerns which exercise voters far more:
Block Donald J Trump from UK entry
Stop all immigration and close the UK borders until ISIS is defeated.
Further down the list includes:
I’m not sure if the country is more concerned with facial hair than fracking, but dogs are invariably higher on the list than fracking, as are serious issues like immigration, the NHS or taxes. 15 of the petitions have made it to the debate stage, even though that accomplishes nothing.
But a psychologist would ask, why is there fear among regulators and investors over such a demonstrably small minority? I couldn’t imagine many hedge funds lose sleep over the opinion of the Socialist Worker Party in economic matters. Similarly, although there are at least a thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses outside London Tube and Rail stations every single day, I don’t think there is fear struck into defence contractors or seeing the Department of Health banning blood transfusions in the near future.
The Parliament web site is especially useful as the mapping tool breaks it down by parliamentary seat. Using the petition on fracking expiring next week, there are only 2,038 signatories in London out of 8 million for example. Even in Fylde, the Cuadrilla area, there were only 315 people exercised enough to sign the petition. Last May, 43,557 voted and the two anti candidates got 15% of the vote. Another anti-fracking hot spot is Cornwall. Fracking is more likely on the moon, but Cornwall would have higher than the average numbers of rich seniors who like the countryside. Brighton Pavilion is the seat of the UK's only Green MP and has more signatories than any other at 379.That's hardly a vanguard of popular opposition. Just up the coast at Hastings we have the seat of Amber Rudd, the DECC Secretary. She's not quaking at 112, and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom's South Northamptonshire seat can probably absorb the 37 opponents there. Remember Balcombe? That's where demonstrators in the summer of 2013 allegedly proved how impossible UK shale would be.The Mid Sussex seat it sits in shows one year later only 113 voters out of the average UK constituency size of 70,000 even care.
The product of fracking is a bit like any other. We’re not going to get 100% acceptance and it’s pointless to try. There are a huge range of grown up renewable companies, trade associations, academics and NGO’s who are realistic about onshore UK natural gas. It’s time we reached out to them and stopped confusing them with Friends of the Earth. It’s also time investors, politicians or bureaucrats stop traumatically bonding with opponents and stop slowing down the industry they otherwise profess to support.
Its strange how some may perceive anything less than 100% acceptance as opposition.That’s Traumatic Bonding.
Luckily, most of us know that there is nothing to fear except fear itself. After all, most of us can count.