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23 July 2014 17:53 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The case for constructive environmentalism

  • Ivo Vegter
Between legal obstructionism, personal attacks and a refusal to defend their claims on public platforms, the anti-fracking lobby serves neither environmentalism, nor the broader public.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been on an extended road trip to a number of towns and cities across the country, where I had the opportunity to discuss shale gas drilling in particular, and environmental exaggeration in general. What I learned did not redeem organised environmentalism in my opinion.

However, I also met people who demonstrated that the environmental movement is not representative. It may be more visible and grab more sensational headlines, but I found much support for the view that environmental concerns and economic development are not mutually exclusive, and that neither is served by rhetorical exaggeration.

My tour started in Prince Albert, on the edge of the Great Karoo, near where the chairman of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, Jonathan Deal, who ordinarily lives in Cape Town, has a farm.

The black “no fracking” bands around the trees in the main road were a none-too-subtle hint that I would be an underdog in the debate against Deal, arranged on 10 November 2012 as part of the inaugural “Leesfees” (“Reading Festival”), to celebrate the town’s 250-year anniversary.

Deal began by telling the full house, 73% of whom had declared themselves to be in his favour before the debate, that: “We’re beyond the minutiae of chemicals, water use and waste water.”

He proceeded to accuse the government of insufficient public consultation, of regulatory incompetence, and of corruption.

In a post-debate comment on a social network, Deal claimed that he argued the facts, which he said I did not. The penny dropped. I recalled that he had used the exact same phrasing – “beyond the minutiae” – to open a debate in July 2011 at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, mere months after the TKAG was established and before the government imposed a moratorium to consider stakeholder input. 

The claims I disputed, and which Deal rhetorically dismissed as “minutiae”, do appear in the TKAG’s most recent submissions to government, one of which I happen to have seen, dated August 2012.

His strategy, I realised, was not to argue facts, but to avoid having to do so. He wanted to focus on procedural technicalities and canvass support for legal obstructionism. Evidently, he is “beyond the minutiae” when having to defend them in the court of public opinion, but not when he is trying to influence public policy.

Kallie Erasmus, a resident of Prince Albert in the audience, an environmental lawyer for 25 years, and founding head of Unisa’s Centre for Development Administration, got up to say South Africa’s environmental law framework is very robust. If Deal is right, he argued, exploration and the associated environmental impact assessments would soon make his claims patently obvious and indisputable. If he is wrong, however, he would be denying South Africans an opportunity to stimulate direct economic activity and take advantage of a plentiful, clean and efficient source of electricity.

I did not expect such a sound defence of my position from the audience in Prince Albert. After the debate, only 62% of the audience remained on Deal’s side. An 11% swing to “undecided” is a more favourable result than I expected as a clear underdog on his home turf. 

Several people afterwards said they had never heard “the other side” of the issue. A few high school kids bought my book, saying they had enough of the emotional arguments of environmentalists and would like to hear the facts.

In George on 20 November, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) hosted a debate on shale gas drilling, attended by green-minded residents and anti-fracking activists. The proceeds were to benefit the TKAG – which appears to need the money to pay its lawyers.

My opponent was Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor, who owns Water Symphony, a water recycling business, and is an executive member of the TKAG. His argument in answer to mine was described by an audience member who interrupted: “Bullshit! This is nothing but a self-serving personal attack on the previous speaker. We came here to hear facts.”

This elicited loud applause, despite the fact that the audience could have been expected to be on Westgarth-Taylor’s side.

As Wendy Dewberry, a local resident who has long been a vocal critic of mine, wrote in a letter to the Cape Times: “...he [yours truly] never quelled my concerns about fracking, so I looked forward to hearing a fact-based, positivist response, supporting all that the Treasure the Karoo Action Group stands for.

“What an embarrassment. It began with a character assassination of the previous speaker [me], followed by personal opinion rather than scientific fact or verifiable information, and concluded with nothing... Unfortunately, this time the pro-frackers won the debate simply by following the rules of engagement. If environmentalists wish to convince people, they will have to be professional, broad-minded, legal and clever. Bunny-hugging just makes grandiose journalists like Ivo Vegter look like rocket scientists.”

Leaving aside the question of whether the debate was won on style or substance, her criticism of my opponent is revealing.

If even those who strongly disagree with me can’t bring themselves to support the TKAG in debates, and TKAG representatives on two occasions declined to argue the facts, preferring bureaucratic technicalities the first time, and personal attacks the second, perhaps that is because the group is unable to defend its substantive claims.

In Grahamstown on 17 and 18 November, I had an entirely different audience at a small annual libertarian seminar. Though not opposed to shale gas in principle, most delegates felt it would serve to legitimise the government’s unjust expropriation of mineral rights, and they share my view that corruption and lack of regulatory capacity are serious dangers. A local farmer told me that his concerns – risk mitigation, royalties if things go right and compensation if things go wrong – aren’t being addressed by the environmental lobby at all.

It was here, however, that someone raised the Audubon Society. Aren’t they doing good work? I was unfamiliar with their present work in relation to shale gas drilling, but a week later, an Associated Press article served to fill me in. It is reportedly among a number of groups who feel they can contribute their expertise and passion to engage the natural gas industry, with a view to establishing rules and procedures that advance research and reduce risks. 

There are many areas in which such collaboration could be very productive. Among the questions that it would seek to address about shale gas drilling in the Karoo are: where best to source production water; how wastewater can be treated or safely disposed of; how pipelines can be built to minimise environmental impact; what chemical cocktail would serve both the needs of industry and allay the concerns of environmentalists; how dust and other surface disruption to farmers and vegetation can be minimised; how farmers can be compensated for the imposition upon their land; how the presence of dolerite intrusions impacts well drilling; how baseline water well testing can be conducted and funded; how accidents can be prevented; what to do if spills do occur; how land impact can be minimised and restored upon well abandonment; and how depleted wells should be sealed to minimise future risk. 

None of these issues, in my view, pose grave risks according to the best available information today, but all can benefit from more research by scientists working for both industry and environmental groups.

Organisations such as Audubon in the US are finding that an approach of constructive engagement is welcomed by the industry, which isn’t averse to funding it either. Phil Wallis, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Audubon Society, told the AP that the industry “in general, is interested in resolving these issues”.

“If we simply sit and protest, we’re missing an opportunity,” Mark Brownstein, the chief counsel for the energy programme at the Environmental Defense Fund reportedly said.

According to the Mail & Guardian, the Democratic Alliance’s position – which has been a matter of some controversy during its federal congress this past weekend – is to permit hydraulic fracturing only once a strategic environmental assessment has been undertaken and appropriate legislation is in place with tough penalties for contravention.

It would be nice to think that environmental groups could contribute meaningfully to the development of regulations that would help landowners and the government to hold drilling companies to account. It would be constructive to cooperate with shale gas drilling companies in identifying and mitigating the environmental risks.

I got the impression that Wessa, like the Audubon Society, could be such a group. Certainly, the members I met and the audience attending the debate seemed willing to consider both sides of the story, even if they were wary of both government and shale gas drilling.

Unfortunately, however, the TKAG, which has set itself up as the leading lobby against shale gas drilling, remains resolutely intransigent in its opposition to shale gas drilling under any conditions. Unfortunately, it supports its position with claims I believe to be dubious or exaggerated, but which it declines to defend on public platforms. Unfortunately, all it appears to agitate for is legal obstructionism on grounds that are for the most part procedural technicalities.

It not only says that government is corrupt and has a dubious record in holding companies to account for environmental transgressions that infringe on the rights of citizens, but that it is too incompetent to regulate the industry.

Other than Westgarth-Taylor, who says if I’m not paid by Shell I must be paid by the ANC, nobody has ever accused me of being a shill for the government. I have warned about the danger of corruption myself. But even if charges of incompetence are true, they are politically self-defeating.

Government officials will likely be offended by such a claim made by a lobby group they view as a bunch of rich, white busybodies. Moreover, such a view would be largely accurate in my experience. The fracking debates in which I took part these last few weeks were exclusively white affairs. The only brown faces in evidence were the staff who served us our organic wine. Elitist dismissal of the economic concerns of the poor and unemployed pervaded the discussions before, during and after the debates. Besides occasional overt racism, which still appears to fester in our small towns, the pointed use of “them” as an ill-disguised slur was common, especially when directed at the ANC government.

This being the case, I do not expect government regulators to be inclined to work with the green lobby in addressing environmental concerns, and I would not blame them.

Together with the personal attacks and the refusal to debate facts (sorry, “minutiae”), the one impression I most certainly did not get was that of a lobby that argues in good faith.

More’s the pity. Lobbying in the best interests of the country, rather than for narrow ideological prejudice, could play a constructive role in promoting economic development while mitigating environmental risk. Sadly, constructive engagement with either the government or the shale gas industry appears to be the furthest thing from the anti-fracking lobby’s collective mind. DM

  • 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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