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
39,577 signatures

 (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
572,978 signatures
Stop all immigration and close the UK borders until ISIS is defeated.
456,427 signatures
Accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugee migrants in the UK.
449,138 signatures

Further down the list includes: 

Make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal.
236,170 signatures
Restrict the use of fireworks to reduce stress and fear in animals and pets
74,647 signatures
Disallow puppy farms in the UK in which beagles are bred for animal testing
16,747 signatures
Enforce mandatory drug tests for all Members of Parliament.
8,685 signatures
To allow soldiers who serve in the British Army to wear neat/trimmed facial hair
8,662 signatures
Amend the Animal Welfare Act;make it illegal to leave an animal in a hot vehicle
7,741 signatures

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.

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  • Michael Roberts

    :) I'd have reblogged this. Most people I know in Lancs don't oppose fracking

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  • Ken W

    A very interesting piece, especially the breakdown of the Fylde opposition. I will tweet it, not that I can claim to have a lot of followers!

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  • John Law

    but…but.. but if their is one dissenting opinion, in our UK numpty media, it is labelled CONTROVERSIAL!

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  • TooWindy

    Mr Grealy
    While I agree with your analysis I think you greatly underestimated the effectiveness of the persistently loud and relentless campaigns of spread fears and misinformation by the anti fracking brigades. They have targeted issue ranging from noise to cancer and they go from twisted truth back and forth (just look at some on the anti fracking articles and comments ) even in the light of scientific and professional reports by the Royals Society DECC HSE US EPA etc. That's all they do as a part of their existence. The industry on the other hand have to disapprove these smear campaign while at the same time getting the jobs and their business activities done. There is also an underlying jealousy and grudges against the fossil fuel economy due to the perception of the greed and money associated with it. The public are ignorant about where the fuel and energy come from as long as they are their and so even if most know we need fracking and most won't call out to support it. And so the misinformation keep getting heard and the facts are just background noise. Take the Independent for examples. When it comes to the US politics and economy cheap oil price reduced emission most articles from them acknowledge or attribute to the success of US shale. But when it comes to an article about UK energy or shale all are quoting how shale is going to cause disruption to local and global environment and put a big question mark on its benefits. The government and industry must drill and frack a few wells and show real examples. The dragging on debate and study of hypothesis on uk shale doesn't help to dispelled or prove either side cases. 'Just do it' is what's needed.

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  • Excellent article. Very true, I live in Ryedale where Third Energy have an application in to frac a well. There is a small group of locals who have been caught up in the scare stories promoted by London leaders of Frack Free Ryedale and Frack Free North Yorkshire. They head north like Pied Pipers and find a few who are vulnerable enough to follow them. They become brain washed into believing the nonsense the antis promote, which is pure propaganda. They have very little support locally but shout about as if they endless, claiming 4,000 members! It is a joke. On their FB group they have 1000 but hardly any are local and there is only a core handful who post, again few from our region. FOI is definitely behind much of what is happening. Releasing a leaflet to scare people, it had 8 pages and 5 were asking for money. Showing an elderly woman with a younger woman with a comforting arm around her. Presumably to show how caring FOI are and to insinuate they will 'save' old ladies from those nasty frackers. These anti fracking groups are possibly a wonderful way for FOI and the like to fund raise to support their high earning bosses. Capitalists? It disgusts many in the area and Yorkshire people do not suffer fools gladly and are blunt speaking. We do not like what is happening and we are not stupid and they are not welcome in our region. On this Friday there is a meeting at NYCC for the Scrutiny committee to 'meet the experts' and ask questions in regard to the regulations associated with HVHF. For example the EA, UKOOG, DECC and the like are there. Guess who are the first group of 'experts' to speak, FOI. Since when did they become experts? Expert at scaremongering and fund raising possibly.

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  • Bill

    Nick, you have definitely hit on something here that is worth keeping in mind. Opposition groups, no matter what the proposed activity, have learned how best to amplify their voices and appear larger than they are. They understand that this is the best hope they have for impacting policy decisions.

    Two additional points to emphasize:

    First, as you have mentioned, the media plays a central role in this arrangement. It is to be expected that they would embrace the opposition's viewpoint and tend to bias their reports accordingly. Controversy sells and we understand that Emily Gosden, and others like her, need to ring the cash register first and foremost. That Emily and others don't demonstrate much journalistic integrity, that they don't hold the opposition to the same standards they expect from industry, is widely accepted. As you've noted, when pay is so low for this dying industry, we should not expect much.

    Second, the UK government could do much more to educate the population. Amber Rudd and Andrea Leadsom need a full-fledged, multi-media campaign of truth to demonstrate the reality of fracking to the UK's population. There are so many innovative ways to attract positive attention to the industry and few are being leveraged today.

    There should be a website, a facebook page, a Twitter account, a Youtube channel, and an organization making weekly press releases. Video testimonials from leading scientists supporting the science and evidence of fracking should be released and refreshed frequently through these channels. They should go to Western PA, Austin TX, LosAngeles CA, and interview residents about the reality of having well pads operating in the general vicinity. They should interview regulators at the EPA. They should interview state regulators. Of course, they should do a segment on how much the US economy and environment have benefited from shale gas. They should advertise vigorously in print, radio, and television to draw people to look at these materials.

    Most people have at least a basic level of trust in the government. The UK needs to use that trust to get the truth out about fracking and take the wind out of the sails of the anti's. The material it publishes needs to be honest and objective, and not promotional. But that's the whole point, right? Because the facts are on industry's side, it should win the public debate with a little more effort.

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  • Nick

    Thanks to everyone for their comments here, glad to see that this hit a chord ! I'll do another post in more detail, but if this can gain wider circulation it would help.

    Quickly though, Too Windy is quite right. We just need to drill some wells and settle this one way or the other. Antis constantly tell me that the UK resource won't work for the usual reasons, and the reply to that is: Why won't you give the me the chance to prove you right?

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  • Johnny

    "One of the great myths remaining about UK shale gas is that public opposition will make it impossible to develop."

    I recommend you to read the Story of Metgasco In Australia, then you will see that this fear is not that irrational.

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  • Daly Walsh

    Out of interest how would you feel if a fracking well went up opposite to your home? I am opposed to fracking based on environmental and health concerns but am pragmatic enough to accept a lesser of two evils approach. Why can't the operators simply find low impact places to drill rather than turning country villages into industrial sites. Presumably given your background you are drawn to gas exploration sites and have no issue with trucks, fields getting concreted over, flame throwing, 24 hour generators and loads of hairy arsed workers roaming around.

    If IGAS etal simply addressed the NIMBY issue and accepted that some places are simply out of bounds rather than steamrolling over communities then perhaps some pragmatic consensus can be found.

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  • Nick

    Daly Walsh:
    Next to my home? Well my neighbours Tomasz and Alice who share party wall with me might not be too impressed and it wouldn't be appropriate. But 70 meters away in a relatively abandoned BT site at KT2 6RX wouldn't bother me in the least
    An even better site would be at Chessington World of Adventures, about 8 Km away. The issue with above ground is that we're not really interested in that, it's what lies beneath. Any above ground disturbance would be transitory, no different that hundreds of construction projects in London. Thanks to horizontal drilling, any oil and gas 2 K under my house could be accessed from far away. Bring it on!
    But there are way more appropriate areas geologically speaking in London than my neighbourhood. Plenty of empty brownfield sites in London which would have a short term effect. Why aren't there urban brownfield sites being used in the UK? Why indeed? Not by my choice, let me assure you.

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