The buck starts here
28 November 2014 16:18 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!

  • Ivo Vegter
If the Treasure the Karoo Action Group wanted to be consistent, its arguments about the surface impact of shale gas drilling apply equally well to the Square Kilometre Array.

The world is small and full of coincidences. This week, Rhodes University hosts Wordfest, an annual celebration of South African writing held at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival.

It offers an intimate and constructive space for literary, poetic and journalistic writers to engage audiences, launch new work, and discuss burning but oft-ignored issues in South Africa. Authors at this year's Wordfest include the likes of Anthony Butler (“Paying for Politics”), Shubnum Khan (“Onion Tears”), Russell Kaschula and Bulelwa Nosilela (“Ukuthwala”), William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni (“The Poverty of Ideas”), David Beresford (“Truth is a Strange Fruit”), and Sindiwe Magona (“Please Take Photographs”).

Each year, the event opens with a debate on a controversial subject, which the organisers believe would benefit from a frank and sober exposition of facts, questions and points of view. This year, gas drilling in the Karoo, using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”, was the chosen subject.

I was honoured to be asked to present the arguments I've made in these columns. Also contributing to the debate were a number of scientists, a professor of literature, and the photographer and environmentalist Jonathan Deal, who runs the Treasure the Karoo Action Group. All sides – for, against, and on the fence – were well represented.

The reason for mentioning Wordfest is that there is an eponymous international writers festival held in the town of Banff, Canada, each year. This is a coincidence, because yesterday, another meeting began in that very town. The final international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) forum meeting is underway in Banff. By next year, we will know whether South Africa or Australia will win the honour of hosting the world's largest-ever radio telescope project.

This, in turn, is a coincidence, because while many of the arguments I made at the debate will be familiar to Daily Maverick readers from my first and second fracking columns, I happened to present a new slideshow on the SKA at the debate on fracking.

The reason why the SKA was relevant is that it speaks to a key piece of propaganda shown by the anti-fracking lobby. Deal can often be seen with a large laminated colour poster of this aerial photograph of a large gas drilling field in Jonah, Wyoming. “Is this what you want the Karoo to look like?” is the rhetorical question.

The Jonah Field is particularly productive, and covers about 85 square kilometres. This, they say, would be the fate of much of the Karoo if the government were to permit exploration for shale gas.

This is somewhat less than half-true. The Jonah site is not a horizontal-drilling shale gas field. Only vertical wells are used there, which means it requires far more well-heads to cover the same area. A considerably lower density of well-heads is likely in shale gas fields in the Karoo, thanks to the ability to reach far more shale from a single well-head. That would indeed be the fate of a number of similar-sized sites in the Karoo, but these will be vanishingly small compared to its 400,000 square kilometre extent. Those sites, not nearly as crowded as this, will be the size of a small town. Just try spotting small towns on a satellite photo that shows the entire Karoo.

This photo made me think of a recent email discussion I had with Adrian Tiplady, who selects sites for the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project. The topic of discussion was the likely negative impact of gas drilling, using hydraulic fracturing, on the billion-dollar science project South Africa is bidding to host in the Karoo.

In an email, he said that the SKA will contain about 1,500 big dishes in the core area north-west of Carnarvon, with another 1,500 radiating from there in a great big five-armed spiral. Each clump of receivers occupies a site of between two and four hectares.

(It should be noted, since Peter Rose, a professor of microbiology who spoke at the debate seemed to believe otherwise, that the “square kilometre” in the name refers to the total collecting area of the telescopes, not to the geographical extent of the site.)

The core area of the SKA will look like this:

This covers about the same area as the Jonah Gas Field. Still, it merits no more than a dot in the middle of nowhere, on a map:

By “the middle of nowhere”, I don't mean to denigrate what surely is splendid scenery under that red dot in the middle of, well, nowhere. I mean that the entire region marked out on the map above is protected by law.

You may not enter or reside in this region without permission from the management authority. You may not do most things compatible with civilised life – such as erect lights, fly an aeroplane, drive a truck, construct a road, build a house, or broadcast a radio signal – in this region without permission. Even such farm-like activities as combine harvesting and arc-welding will be severely restricted or prohibited.

But we're getting side-tracked. In this core area – like in the five-armed spiral that will extend throughout the Karoo and even beyond – there will be a variety of radio telescopes, listening to radio frequencies from as low as 70 MHz (VHF) upwards.

The following images are artist impressions of the equipment that will be built in the Karoo. These images are not from an extreme environmental group trying to drum up opposition to the project, but from the SKA website, where they are posted as promotional material.

This is what they call the sparse aperture array:

Those little things look positively harmless compared to the massively imposing structures of the dense aperture array:

These are the radio telescope dishes we're mostly familiar with:

Here is where we notice a slight problem. Didn't the artist forget something? Where are the site buildings? The access roads? Where is the impact on the Karoo?

Each of these telescopes has to be built. Like gas well drilling, this operation will take a few weeks per site, and involve heavy machinery.

Each telescope is a substantial engineering project in its own right.

Once finished, the telescopes are connected by access roads and various pipes and cables to the control and data network.

Here's what a completed cluster of telescopes looks like. This is not an artist's impression, but an actual photograph of the KAT7 precursor array, located outside Carnarvon. Notice the bakkie, the site offices and the truck, to get an idea of the size of these things.

So, with this new information about what the SKA will really look like, I took the liberty of creating my own artist's impression.

Recognise it?

Now I like to be consistent. I don't oppose either project. I don't believe either will “destroy the timeless Karoo”.

However, what I would like to know is why the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, and all the other people so vehemently opposed to shale gas drilling, are not leading a loud campaign against the Square Kilometre Array.

Not having received a satisfactory answer when I asked this question at the debate, I'll reach my own conclusions about why their arguments are so suspiciously inconsistent.

Note, for example, that several journalists opposing fracking turn out not to be as squeaky clean as they appear.

Geraldine Bennett, described by her editor, Alec Hogg, as “Moneyweb’s Erin Brockovich” wrote a series of pieces against shale gas drilling, and did so with a donation from the Treasure the Karoo Action Group. She disclosed this fact, as if there's nothing wrong with a reporter taking money from lobbyists.

Andreas Späth, the News24 columnist who challenged my views in a column, turns out to be the anti-fracking coordinator at EarthLife Africa. His bio at the end reads: “Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath”

That's sterling, Mr Späth, but don't you think working for a high-profile environmental activist group might be a more material disclaimer than being a bookshop manager? (I asked him this question on Twitter, but received no reply.)

I've often been accused of being a paid shill, but if I really did take “donations” from either side – whether it's from the TKAG's R10 million war chest or Shell's lobbying budget – I'd fully expect my credibility and career to be over. I don't work that way. Apparently, such qualms do not burden all journalists.

Another reason the TKAG might not be opposing the SKA is that its campaign doesn't really have anything to do with fracking.

During the Wordfest debate, Jonathan Deal contradicted himself a number of times, and it took dogged questioning by a member of the audience to get to the truth.

At first, he said: “We are not holding a view that says no fracking in South Africa. What we are saying is show us, prove to us, that it is a benign technology and that it can be done sustainably in this country.”

There's an obvious legal and logical issue with this position. It's like jailing someone because he cannot prove that he will never kill anyone in future, or revoking his driver's licence because he acknowledges that there is a small risk that he might cause an accident one day.

Leaving aside that this position is nonsensical on the face of it, it also contradicts the essence of the slogans the group promotes, as well as his own later statement. Turns out he actually does say no fracking in South Africa. In fact, he opposed gas drilling in its entirety, with or without hydraulic fracturing, in favour of investment in so-called “sustainable” energy.

This is the same position Späth stated, which raises the question why these eco-warriors use the term “fracking” in such a deceptive manner.

Honest activists would just say that the government should ban fossil fuels, “because the age of fossil fuels is over”. Stuff the poor.

Smart activists would put their money where their mouths are, start alternative energy companies, and clean the floor with the short-sighted idiots at Big Oil.

Another reason for the inconsistency on the SKA's environmental impact is that astronomy is not an easy target for whipping up public anger.

Deal admitted that the Treasure the Karoo Action Group campaign was characterised by overly emotive rhetoric, excusing it by saying this was necessary to raise the issue to public prominence. While this view is common, it is not only false, but dangerous.

Whipping up mobs has very real consequences. Appeals to emotion mislead the uninformed, by establishing vehemently held opinions that have no bearing on the facts. Such views influence government policy, not only because few policy makers have the time to become experts themselves, but also because they're politicians who have a strong incentive to adopt popular positions, rather than rational policy based on fact.

Worst of all, whipping up anger leads to death threats, and threats to have farms burnt down if the owners do not join their neighbours in their opposition to gas drilling.
Given the record of deception, fear-mongering, and conflicts of interest on the part of the organised opposition to fracking, is it any wonder that they're not consistent enough to call for a ban on the Square Kilometre Array? DM


Bio: Ivo Vegter is a columnist. That is all. Follow him on Twitter: @IvoVegter.

Photo sources:

The Jonah Gas Field photo by Burce Gordon / EcoFlight, courtesy of SkyTruth. Used with permission.

The SKA images are from ska.ac.za. SKA South Africa holds the copyright.

The final image is a composite, created by Ivo Vegter.

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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