Defend Truth


Supporting the Karoo fracking is just plain wrong. Here’s why.

Donald Paul is a freelance writer and editor. He has no children but still thinks those that do should have the benefit of being able to leave them a good, clean and safe world to live in. He lives in Cape Town but still only thinks of the mountain in the lower case (9pt courier font, for those who like details). He has a bakkie, a bicycle, two cats and books—some with pictures. His last steady job was editor of The Big Issue South Africa for three years.

While most understand that progress never really comes without sacrifice and compromise, Ivo Vegter's column has transmogrified the debate over fracking the Karoo into a volcanic furore. With good reason.

Recently, the righteous voices of reason stepped into the fray regarding the use of hydraulic fracturing technology in prospecting for shale gas in the Karoo. One of the voices is columnist Ivo Vegter, who assumed the role of Devil’s advocate. Such a role requires a modicum of intellectual rigour, otherwise you end up playing God’s advocate, endorsing that which you supposedly set out to question. It’s an easy back-slide and reveals a penchant for controversy over a desire for coherency.

Lewis Pugh, a critic of environmental degradation and a spokesman for Treasure the Karoo Action Group, challenged Shell, and other gas and oil companies, about its plan to frack in the Karoo and in so doing made a speech that was widely reprinted and replayed on various digital channels. For some it was rousing. For others, it was “propaganda” and “alarming”. The latter determined that what Pugh was saying was that there would be war over water.

What he said was: “If we damage our limited water supply?and fracking will do just that?we will have conflict again here in South Africa. Look around the world. Wherever you damage the environment you have conflict.”

That should set off alarm bells. But by “alarming”, the righteous voices of reason make out that Pugh is shouting “fire” in a crowded auditorium. Yet, just a few days ago in Ficksburg, the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens group handed the municipality a list of demands that included “proper water supply, repairs to sewerage drains and waste removal”. Their environment had been damaged by untreated sewerage and uncollected waste. Their letter was ignored and so they marched in their thousands to make their voice heard. The tragic result was the shooting to death of Andries Tatane, a concerned citizen, a father and a respected teacher, who wanted water and clean streets for his family.

That is the conflict of which Pugh warns. To think of conflict only in terms of war indicates an intellectual shallowness more common to tabloid headlines?”Vegan Vampire Eats Kirstenbosch Gardens!” or “Fracking Scandal Exposed!”?than a purported “closer inspection” would indicate.

The voices of reason fail to acknowledge the human rights dimension of this debate being more intent on disparaging, but not refuting, the arguments of those opposed to short-term corporate gains at the expense of the future. We are a member of the United Nations and uphold its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The World Health Organisation in its document “Water, health and human rights” states: “The content of the right to water may be generally defined as a right to access to water of sufficient cleanliness and in sufficient quantities to meet individual needs… While drinking and cooking water would be protected, water for food production would probably not be covered under the minimum needs in arid areas, as agriculture production requires such high amounts of water that individual household needs must first be ensured. The same goes for water for industrial use: although industry and electricity are important for ensuring an adequate standard of living, these uses must not infringe on the right to household water. For both agriculture and industrial uses, contamination of drinking water must be prevented.”

The proponents of fracking cannot in any way show that fracking will not contaminate the Karoo aquifers. What they do say, repeatedly, is that there is “no known link” between fracking and aquifer and groundwater pollution. And they cite only their own expert testimony.

The level of political naïveté  revealed in the statements of the voices of reason when commenting on Pugh’s speech recurs throughout their “close inspection” of the claims of Pugh and others opposed to fracking in the Karoo and elsewhere.

Vegter wrote of Pugh’s speech: “Then he invoked the political tyrants being toppled in north Africa, and deftly juxtaposed ‘corporate tyranny’ as if it’s the same thing.”

That’s a bit embarrassing, really. Like when your partner’s just spent R850 at the hairdresser and you still have to ask: “Really? What’s the difference?” To think that so-called democratic countries such as the US are not dictated to by the corporate tyranny of big business is like still believing Ralph Nader was a Satanist for challenging GM on its car safety.

(For those who don’t remember, Nader took on the automotive giants with his book “Unsafe At Any Speed” (1965) and successfully sued GM and its posse of righteous voices of reason for the subsequent “dirty tricks” campaign they launched to smear his credibility. He won a payout and a public apology from the then CEO of GM.)

That’s the interesting thing about comfort zones and voices of reason. Take cars: most of those reading this column drive a car and some of you may smoke. Cigarette lighters have been a standard feature in cars since the 1920s, but automobile manufacturers were only forced to make safety belts a standard feature in the late 1950s. More people were dying from the effects of cigarette smoking than were dying in car crashes. Doctors, dealing with the trauma of patients involved in car crashes, helped push through seat-belt legislation, despite the assurances of experts saying they were not necessary. Tobacco manufacturers hid behind a fortress of lawyers, corrupt politicians and compromised scientists for more than 40 years to hide the fact that nicotine is addictive and that smoking kills. They also denied the effects of secondary smoke.

The naïveté  continues. Vegter cited reams of outdated research regarding “signed statements from state officials representing Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Alabama, and Texas, responding to these allegations [water contamination]. As a result of our regulatory review and analysis, the GWPC concluded that state oil and gas regulations are adequately designed to directly protect water resources”.

This is staggeringly naïve and shoddy research. These legislators were making a political argument, not a scientific one?in other words, they were covering their backs. The reason why the US’s Environmental Protection Agency is re-opening the debate on the use of hydraulic fracturing?hearings are being conducted as this is being written?is because whistle-blowers within EPA confirmed that political pressure had been brought to bear on the original reports. As Wes Wilson, one of the EPA whistle-blowers, said in a recent interview about that report, five of the seven members of the study’s peer review panel were current or former employees of the oil and gas industry.

Numerous complainants petitioned the US government to get the EPA to review the earlier decision on hydraulic fracking. Neil Zusman, from Ithaca, NY, is particularly poignant: “I have read widely on this topic and it is of personal interest to me. I am not a scientist. I observe the events along the historical timeline that include civil rights, anti-war protest, and the environmental movement. I believe they are inextricably linked. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor and a proud American, yet I know the health and democratic dangers faced by a nation whose over-arching motivation involves economic benefits especially in times of economic distress.

“The EPA has failed to act on the evidence of public danger caused by toxic materials released into the water as a result of hydraulic fracturing. This failure first occurred in the 1990s in Alabama, in a case brought by Leaf (Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation). Alabama was the only state to come under the regulations of the UIC programme. Among the stakeholder case studies mentioned in the Appendices of the Draft Study, Alabama is notably absent. This concerns me.

“The legacy that this study follows is onerous: The 11th Circuit Court originally scheduled oral arguments for the Leaf II case for the week of 26 February 2001. This schedule was changed and the oral arguments were conducted on 12 March 2001 in Atlanta. The National Energy Policy Development Group was a group, created by Executive Order on 29 January 2001, that was chaired by Vice President Richard Cheney.”

While he was US vice president, Cheney backed a series of measures favouring his former employer, Halliburton, whose hydraulic fracturing technology generated $1.5 billion a year for the company, “about one-fifth of its energy-related revenue”. LA Times’ reporters Tom Hamburger and Alan Miller pointed out in 2004: “Halliburton and other oil and gas firms have been fighting efforts to regulate the procedure [fracking] under a statute that protects drinking water supplies. The 2001 national energy policy report, written under the direction of the vice president’s office (Cheney), cited the value of hydraulic fracturing, but didn’t mention concerns raised by staff members at the Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, the administration has taken steps to keep the practice from being regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which Halliburton has said would hurt its business and add needless costs and bureaucratic delays.”

Neil Zusman goes on to say: “Americans were fortunate to have whistle-blowers bring important national health issues to the press. This study you undertake, as other EPA studies in the past, have fallen short of protecting public health. In fact, Congress has recently found that the gas industry has failed to uphold its agreement not to use diesel in wells. Yet, little enforcement of EPA regulations has made Americans more vulnerable to the toxic practice of gas drilling. The states have not shown that they can adequately regulate gas drilling, especially in more populated areas. Federal regulations are clearly needed. Time and time again, as noted by a Pew Research Group report, a wide variety of industries, in seat belts, lead paint, cigarettes and many others, have fought federal regulation only to have history prove that it never hurt their bottom line.”

Water is at the heart of this debate?fracking requires large amounts of water?and the voices of reason latch on to it, as they should. Yet, again, the poor writing and shoddy research of the proponents of fracking reveal at best a lack of rigour and at worst obfuscation worthy of Cheney.

One of the objections raised against Pugh was that he quoted the amount of water required for fracking in litres. The figures were given?in litres?to reporters by Kim Bye Braun, media communications manager of Shell. Most of the studies on hydraulic fracturing emanate from the US, which uses gallons (US). The conversion was to litres because SA doesn’t use the imperial measure. This is a red herring. But okay, let’s talk of  7,000 to 144,000 cubic metres of water. Does it now sound like nothing?

But, let’s take these numbers that the voices of reason have supplied and unwind the spin (and here I am indebted to comment from a concerned reader). US reports frequently give the amount of water to a well as between 1 million and 8 million gallons, approximately 4,000m³ to 30,000m³. Shell South Africa says roughly 7,000m³  to 144,000 m³.

The figures given by the oil companies about the amount of water needed for fracking are, however, questionable. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, that hotbed of socialist, bunny-hugger thinkers, says each well will require on average 44,000,000 gallons of water. That’s 166,558m³ of water.

Vegter says the projected use at Medupi is 14million cubic metres which is roughly 100 times as much as will be used in the Karoo. That’s true if you are talking about one well. Shell alone plans 24 wells in its exploration phase. Thus, that first fracking phase alone will use the equivalent of 25% of what Medupi will use annually.

If those 24 exploratory sites are developed into production sites, it is possible that there may be as many as eight wells on each site, each one requiring fracking at three- to five-year intervals. This alone would then begin to rival Medupi’s water usage. And if you factor in the possibility that each well can use up to 16 multiple horizontal fracture drills fanning out from the vertical shaft, the amount of water to each well increases considerably.

Each of those sites can exploit possibly a maximum of 10km², probably less (in the US they talk about 80 acres?three sites per km²) . If only 10% of the 90,000km² under consideration in the Shell application is exploited that means something like 9,000 sites, each using 144,000m³, the amount of water required will be in the region of 1.296 million cubic metres – let’s say a billion cubic metres. The Gariep Dam has a total storage capacity of approximately five billion cubic metres. You’re talking about perhaps 10% of the entire country’s water supply?that’s a lot whether measured in imperial or metric units.

Now, what happens when all this, chemically toxic, filthy, water comes back up out of the ground. What do we do with it then? The voices of reason are as silent as lambs on this.

Vegter’s claim that Eskom’s Medupi at Lephalale uses vastly more water than fracking ever would is not simply disingenuous, but it is patently false. TKAG is arguing against using the scarce water resources (almost entirely aquifers) upon which the Karoo depends. The comparison is false and as such there is no dichotomy.

Voices of reason always throw up the phrase “false dichotomy” when labelling their objections to a particular point of view. They also begin sentences with the word “indeed”?which is up there with profile writers who call their subject “insightful” and food writers who describe meals as “wholesome”.

The voices of reason also claim that “Shell has long since agreed to ensure it will not compete with local residents or farmers for water”. Shell may say this, but Shell has not answered the question of what water it will use. Nor has it answered the question of what it will do if its actions do contaminate the Karoo’s aquifers. You can’t flush contamination out of an aquifer without using more water?which the Karoo does not have in the first place.

Recently, 13 groups, including Lawyers for Human Rights, WWF South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, petitioned the government because the existing rules controlling mining gave “inadequate time to assess the environmental impacts of mines and imposed penalties that are so low as to be no disincentive whatsoever for mining companies”. They cited the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) which sets a maximum fine of only R500,000 compared with R5 million for similar offences in other environmental legislation.

The Shell EMP (produced by Golder Associates) states: “Shell commits to establishing mutually acceptable protocols for the independent monitoring of the water quality in existing water wells and surface water surrounding Shell’s activities. However, in the highly unlikely event of aquifer pollution, rehabilitation is covered by Shell’s insurance policies, specifically Third Party Liability policies, which includes consequential damage. The financial provision as proposed to PASA will cover any remedial exposure (if any).”

Most of us can’t get any joy out of our small insurance claims. Can you imagine the task of a small farmer in the Karoo trying to take on Shell’s insurance company about his borehole being contaminated? (Perhaps best example is GE and its legendary CEO, Jack Welch’s battle with the New York state over the Hudson River clean-up. General Electric factories discharged  hundreds of tons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) into the river from 1947 to 1977. It took New York state 30 years to get GE to pay for the clean-up, with Jack Welch spearheading the tooth-and-nail fight to avoid the $500 million cleaning tab, a fraction of GE’s turnover and profits.)

The voices of reason refer to plans of trucking in sea water. By Shell’s own estimates, 300 trucks carrying 20,000 litres each will be needed to bring in that amount of sea water for each fracking site. They propose 24 sites. The dust and damage to the environment from that many vehicles is enormous. And, remember, they may use each site to perform up to 16 “frac stages”.

Expert testimony says that salt water used in hydraulic fracturing can lubricate the rock surrounding it, possibly leading to small earthquakes. This may be happening in Arkansas, “which has experienced a sudden surge in seismic activity, including the biggest earthquake recorded by the state in more than three decades”. According to Fox News?not exactly a hotbed of socialist commentary?90% of the earthquakes recorded in the state since 2009 have occurred within six kilometres of salt water sites associated with fracking operations. Steve Horton, an earthquake specialist at the University of Memphis and hydrologic technician with the US Geological Survey, told Fox “the coincidence is too big to ignore”.

But why should we believe Shell? Or rather, how can we believe Shell?or any other  company wanting to frack the Karoo? Shell has a track record of bribery and corruption, especially in Africa. “Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP,” says Pugh. “Shell, has a shocking record in Africa. It has spilt more than 9 million barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta?almost twice the amount of oil that BP spilt into the Gulf of Mexico. It was found guilty of bribing Nigerian officials?and to make the case go away in the US?it paid an admission of guilt fine of $48 million. To top it all, Shell stands accused of being complicit in the execution of Nigeria’s leading environmental campaigner, Ken Saro-Wira and eight other activists. If Shell was innocent, why did it pay $15.5 million to the widows and children to settle the case out of court?”

The worst that the voices of reason can come up with on TKAG is “being emotional”. The stiff-upper-lip-I-won’t-cry attitude is, however, no longer a required attitude as a reflection of honesty in the adult world.

Shell hired Golder Associates, a “global company providing consulting, design, and construction services in earth, environment, and energy” to produce a draft Environmental Management Plan. This document running to more than 250 pages was what farmers and people in the small towns of the Karoo were asked to comment on.

TKAG worked with Havemann Inc., to prepare a response, which was written by Luke Havemann, Havemann Inc, Specialist Energy Attorneys, Cape Town, Jan Glazewski, professor in the Institute of Marine & Environmental Law, University of Cape Town and Susie Brownlie, environmental consultant, De Villiers and Brownlie Associates. They headed up a team of 22 specialists and experts in preparing the study.

Havemann holds a Masters Degree in Marine and Environmental Law from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in the Enviro-Legal Regulation of Oil and Gas from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Glazewski holds a BComm LLB from the University of Cape Town, an LLM from the University of London, a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Cape Town as well as an LLD by published work from the University of Cape Town. Brownlie holds a BSc Honours in Zoology from the University of Cape Town and a Master degree, with distinction, in Environmental Science from the University of Cape Town.

The voices of reason, not unexpectedly, dismiss their 104-page document. A shallow reading of most documents is often revealed in the responses to that document. First, they look to the Netherlands where fracking has been used for 40 years, citing the Netherlands as a “an extremely densely populated, environmentally conscious and highly regulated society”. What they fail to point out is testimony about the effects of fracking.

As one Dutch commentator said: “In the Netherlands they’ve been extracting gas, oil and salt from subterranean layers for over 40 years. In the area, earthquakes have become common while ground levels are sinking. It is a folly to think you can extract anything from deeper levels without the upper levels, eventually, caving in. Even if those levels are deemed impermeable, they’ll fracture as they come down. The logical consequence is that mainly lighter constituents (water, gas, oil) will rise through those cracks. Go dig?the bill is due only in another 50-100 years.”

While it may be safe to collude with the proponents of hydraulic fracturing when you are sitting on the Cape coast, it is perhaps a bit more acceptable if you speak to the people who are directly affected before declaring them “safe”.

Let’s segue to another oil giant: BP, the company responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. This column is about shale gas, but is also about big corporations and their willingness to cut corners. According to an interview with Jeanne Pascal, who worked in the EPA for 26 years as an environmental lawyer, “BP’s flagship $1 billion Thunder Horse drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico nearly sank in 2005 after engineers installed ballast valves backward. And a federal lawsuit over safety concerns on another BP rig, Atlantis, was making its way through the courts even as the Deepwater Horizon exploded.”

Journalists investigating BP corroborated and expanded on Pascal’s concerns and found the company emphasised a “culture of austerity in pursuit of corporate efficiency, lean budgets and shareholder profits”. They found that current and former BP workers and executives said the company “repeatedly cut corners, let alarm and safety systems languish and skipped essential maintenance that could have prevented a number of explosions and spills”. Apparently, internal BP documents support these claims.

Why should we trust Shell to act differently? Because, according to the righteous voices of reason, Shell et al, really care. To put it in Vegter’s words, people aligned with TKAG are the “ecomentalists, with their 4x4s and bicycles and hemp hand bags and enough free time to organise petitions, protests and PR campaigns, might not care.” (The “might” is rhetorical.)

Vegter misquotes the Havemann report. “Indeed, the Haveman [sic] report quite openly bemoans the ‘real paucity of information’ about environmental or health impacts.” The extract from which Vegter quotes is actually Havemann quoting from the Tyndall Report produced in the UK about hydraulic fracturing, and it was that report’s preamble to why there should be a moratorium on fracking?not enough is known about its deleterious effects.

If Vegter had gone a little further?or a little deeper?he would have also noted the Havemann document states, again quoting the Tyndall Report, “[i]n itself, this lack of information can be seen as a finding, as along with the growing body of evidence for ground and surface water contamination from the US and the requirement for the application of the precautionary principle in the EU, shale gas extraction in the UK must surely be delayed until clear evidence of its safety can be presented.” The Tyndall Report goes on to say that, with the considerable uncertainty surrounding the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction, “it seems sensible to wait for the results of the US EPA investigation to bring forward further information”.

The earlier decision of the EPA has been successfully challenged and is now under review by the US Science Advisory Board. All fracking activity in New York state and 160 other locations across the US have been suspended pending the SAB report.

One of the favourite arguments of the voices of reason rests on the assurances given by the drilling companies that the casement technology used in fracturing is safe. They cite a report prepared for the US department of energy which states: “Ground water is protected during the shale gas fracturing process by a combination of the casing and cement that is installed when the well is drilled and the thousands of feet of rock between the fracture zone and any fresh or treatable aquifers.”

The voices of reason lay this out as if this was a statement of fact when it is description of best practices. The document cited here also carries the disclaimer: “The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof.” This document was a position paper, in which it clearly states: “This Shale Gas Primer was intended to be an accurate depiction of current factors and does not represent the view of any individual state. Knowledge about shale gas development will continue to evolve.”

TKAG and its allies are, however, representing the views of an “individual state”?the Karoo. This region is unique in many ways. Let’s take its geology, which begins with the ancient glacial Dwyka tillite and ends 48 million years later in the middle Beaufort time. The edges on the south, the Outeniqua mountains, and the north, the Swartberg, are hard, quartzitic sandstone of the Table Mountain Group. In between are the Precambrian and younger Jurassic formations, weathered and worn into vast flat plains. Aeons later, Gondwana started its dismemberment and triggered tectonic forces below the mantle of mountains to form the main fault-bounded basins, which today we call the Little Karoo.

The terminology of the geological landscape is as rich as the earth of which it speaks: marine sediments, limestone, greywackes, turbidites, the thick conglomerates of the Kansa Group, all lithified and ancient and filled with stretched pebbles.

Through this runs the country’s most extensive fault system, beginning 100km west of Port Elizabeth and ending in Tulbagh. Not only is the fault system extensive, it is active?as Tulbagh experienced in 1969. And there’s no telling what impact fracking will have.

As Shell states in its 2010 Annual Report, “We [Shell] operate in environments where the most advanced technologies are needed. While these technologies are regarded as safe for the environment with today’s knowledge, there is always the possibility of unknown or unforeseeable environmental impacts.” By its own admission, Shell could face a situation while fracking where the groundwater is contaminated.

Vegter draws a contorted conclusion from the fact that TKAG, through the Havemann-commissioned report, is calling for a stop to fracking, and quotes the report. “The underlying argument of this Critical Review is that an immediate halt should be imposed on Shell’s application for an exploration right as well as on any other application for any other form of permit, right or authorisation that, if successful, may bring the advent of fracking in South Africa a step closer to fruition.”

He then says: “It helps having your conclusions written before you draft the report itself.”  It is illogical to use the executive summary of a 104-page document as evidence of bias, it is vaguely paranoid or sensationalist. To go on and label the Havemann document as a sham reveals the shallowness of this argument. In the UK, the Tyndall Report also concluded: “See the evidence given by Prof Anderson where, for example, he stated as follows: ‘What we [the United Kingdom] require, I think, initially would be to learn from history. It seems a reasonable approach to take, yet we have not done that. We have not looked in detail at what has happened in the US. What we know in the US is that some of the states there now have a moratorium on further development pending an inquiry – an independent scientific inquiry. That seems the reasonable route to go. It is hard I would suggest to argue different to that, in the absence of independent scientific inquiry, we will go ahead. It would seem a strange position to hold. I think that we should at least wait to hear back from the EPA in the US. As the previous witnesses (Nigel Smith, geophysicist, British Geological Survey) and Professor Richard Selley (petroleum geologist, Imperial College London) suggested, shale is not necessarily shale. They vary in their petrochemical properties very significantly. I think you would then have to say we needed one in the UK that looked at the types of shale we have here and the differences across the shale here, and try to draw lessons from the US study once that is published. All these are very good and sound reasons why a prudent nation would not rush ahead with it [it being fracking].”

Significantly, the final question posed by the E&CCC was “[S]hould there be a moratorium on shale gas exploration in the UK until 2013, when the EPA is likely to have its report out?” In response to this question, Anderson answered as follows: “Yes, for environmental reasons, and the moratorium should last for probably another few decades for the climate change best perspective.”

If there was any intelligence behind the voices of reason, the worst that could be said is that they are simply arrogant. Unfortunately, it seems they are simply simple. Put it down to naïveté.

Vegter says “hydraulic fracturing reduces the usual impact of drilling, since multiple horizontal shafts can be drilled from a single vertical well, dramatically reducing the footprint of drilling operations on the surface. By that standard, hydraulic fracturing is the most environmentally friendly means of drilling and is perfectly suited to a relatively unspoilt wilderness such as the Karoo.”

What this really means is that instead of pumping between 144,000m³ to 167,000m³ for each fracture (including the horizontal shaft), the oil companies will pump the same or slightly less for each multiple horizontal shaft?what is known as a “frac stage”. This makes it “friendly”? So, from a vertical well?referred to as a “pad”?there could be as much as 16 frac stages. As Cornell University’s Anthony Iggraffea says: “It’s not the number of pads that’s important, it’s the number of frac stages.” He points out that it’s “a chimera to say ‘we’re having fewer pads therefore we’re having less impact’.”

Hate to ask, again, but the voices of reason don’t tackle this, where is the water going to come from for this “environmentally friendly means of drilling” involving multiple frac stages? In addition, this ignores the question of trucking and pipelines and attendant damage. It ignores the dust pollution, the carbon emissions, the construction of roads across pristine land and burial sites of our ancestors. But mainly, it ignores the issues of water. Of course, concern about burial sites, say the voices of reason, is such “charming clean, green waffle”.

Vegter concedes that it “is true that isolated incidents of pollution do occur. Some have been cited above. They do not, however, occur as a result of hydraulic fracturing, but in the normal course of drilling.”

He fails to explain what the difference is between hydraulic fracturing and “the normal course of drilling” during which such “incidents of pollution occur”. The question that should be asked?and not dismissed with basically a meaningless phrase about the “normal course of drilling”?is to what standard should we hold any industry to acceptable risk for its operations (i.e. drilling). No one in their right mind, neither the righteous voices of reason nor the “obstructionism of angry greens”, would demand and expect 100% accountability

Figures gathered in Pennsylvania over a three-year span, show that shale gas drilling averaged a 0.3 error factor. In 2010 there were 1,227 violations?i.e. environmental violations?for 1,386 new wells drilled in Pennsylvania alone. That’s a violation rate of 0.89, almost one a well.

The voices of reason then go on a more risible pursuit: “Why would it ‘destroy the environment’ to permit drilling for shale gas, when drilling for other purposes is celebrated?” Where does TKAG say it celebrates drilling for other purposes? Vegter openly announces that what the TKAG and its supporters really want, in addition to possible access to vast amounts of moolah that they can extricate from the oil companies or even more vast splonges of wonga to be made from cashing in on renewable energy, is a shift from pursuing short-term fossil fuel to sustainable renewable energy.

How did the voices of reason manage to expose this scandalous plot?  At one point, Pugh does say: “Now is the time for change. We cannot drill our way out of the energy crisis. The era of fossil fuels is over. We must invest in renewable energy.” Could that have been the clue? Perhaps, but it’s not a complex sentence structure to grasp.

Ironically, the righteous voices of reason have it right. TKAG and its supporters do want sustainable renewable energy. There, it’s out. Confession. As has been pointed out before, the oil companies want to frack for shale gas for a number of reasons. First, it’s profitable, second, the drilling technology, while relatively young, has proved effective (though not environmentally sound) and finally, especially in the case of Royal Dutch Shell, big oil does not believe in developing renewable energy resources. As the non-executive chairman (and former Nokia CEO) Jorma Ollila stated, “We believe that [renewable energy sources] could provide no more than 30% of global energy by 2050”. And they want to be in the 70% market.

In 2005 Shell spent only 0.87% of its profit on renewable energy, investing an average of $200 million, just 1.2% of its 2005 total capital investment of $17.4 billion. Don’t expect Shell to allocate much of its earnings?a whopping $20.5 billion in 2010?towards renewable energy. More than 75% of capital investment will go to “upstream” projects, such as natural gas. “We think it makes a lot of sense to focus our innovation on natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel,” says Ollila.

There’s a fundamental short-sightedness in this focus. It is an illusion, and a human rights travesty, to believe we have another 40 years to plunder resources and damage the environment. Apart from the need to start immediately investing heavily in renewable energy, we need to protect what remains of the existing environment. The Karoo is a pristine and fragile ecosphere, dependent almost entirely on groundwater. Contaminate that water table, the Karoo’s life blood, and you will destroy the land and its people. That’s the reality.

And no matter what the righteous voices of reason say about the oil companies providing jobs, they will be short-term. And if the aquifers are contaminated, it will be a death sentence. Of course, the righteous voices of reason do bang on a bit about the “cleanliness” of natural gas. If you believe that, you probably also believe the car guard who says he’ll look after you car.

Cornell University, probably high on the list of those “not-to-be-trusted” institutions of learning as they do have such a plethora of social agitators on staff, will publish research in the next month, however, that concludes natural gas produced from hydraulic fracturing contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more. Cornell’s Robert Howarth argues that “development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production.”

The voices of reason won’t like that. After all, they do not see those opposed to the short-term gains of hydraulic fracturing of the Karoo as real people concerned about the future of the Earth. No, such people “aren’t harmless greenies, concerned only with pretty pictures of pristine landscapes and protecting endangered fluffy bunnies”. Instead, we are the sort of people who while they “can afford expensive fuel and other such self-indulgent eco-luxury, most of us cannot”.

Should you ever have the chance?and the iron constitution?to watch a stilted documentary called “The Big Picture”, do so. The film, courtesy of the US department of energy and made primarily for the US armed forces, records the detonation of “Shot Priscilla”, a 37 kiloton atomic bomb in the Nevada Desert in 1957 (Hiroshima was a 13 kiloton bomb). In it, you see a military chaplain calming the fears of two soldiers who were part of a contingent exposed to ground zero at a distance of 2,280m.

“Actually,” says the chaplain, “there is no need to be worried, as the army has taken all of the necessary precautions to see that we are perfectly safe here.” After witnessing the blast, the soldiers returned to Camp Desert Rock, “bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth”.

The US department of energy has a long history of complicity with big business. From 1951 to 1963, it colluded with the Atomic Energy Commission to pursue a “reckless programme of scientific experimentation” that saw the detonation of 126 atomic bombs in the 3,500km² Nevada Test Site. “Each of the pink clouds that drifted across the flat mesas and forbidden valleys of the atomic proving grounds contained levels of radiation comparable to the count released after the explosion in 1986 of the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.”

The leaders of the US nuclear weapons industry waged a 30-year battle to cover up this contamination of North America. It was President Jimmy Carter who, in 1978, ordered that the Atomic Energy Commission make its operational records open to the public. It revealed an horrific account of malfeasance and immorality that would make even the most gung-ho corporate shill shudder.

The problem remains one of perception. Do you adopt the myopic it-is-what-it-is view as expressed by the voices of reason or do you have a vision of the future?and by future, we mean 50, 100, 300 years from now? As Pugh says, “We cannot drill our way out of an energy crisis.”

It’s as if the voices of reason heard the parrots shrieking “Be here now, boys!” and took it literally, not comprehending the rich depth and context within which that phrase rests. What they miss is that “Be here now” implies an acknowledgement that we must “be here now” in such a manner that we shall also “be here tomorrow”. 

The issues around hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo may be local, but, in environmental terms, the entire Earth is our locale. The voices of reason want to confine the debate to the car you and I drive (reliant on oil), the implied need for SA to be “energy independent” (vis-a-vis that natural gas is our saviour) and that shale gas will warm the homes of the poor. Good points. The real issues, which if dealt with appropriately, will resolve the concerns of the voices of reason are clear.

First is water. To quote Pugh: “We can survive without gas; we cannot live without water.” The death of Andries Tatane is not an isolated incident of police violence?it is a glaring example of the inevitable conflict that results from the environmental degradation of a person’s environment.

Second is the matter of human rights. As the environmentalist and writer Wendell Berry said: “The movement to preserve the environment will be seen to be, as I think it has to be, not a digression from the civil rights and peace movements, but the logical culmination of those movements…”

And finally, it is about developing our renewable energy resources. There is no reason to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo. It will not provide us with cheaper energy?energy prices are set by the energy companies, not by the people who use it. Look at Australia.

According to a report by the Australian Industry Group, Australian gas prices stayed relatively low because the industry was isolated from world gas markets. Once the infrastructure is in place to liquefy gas for export, which is what is planned for SA’s shale gas, domestic wholesale prices will converge with global prices. This has already happened in Western Australia and will happen across the continent by 2015. Prices go up.
As history has shown, the cost of all fossil fuels follows an upward trend, and the cost of solar power follows a downward trend. All fossil fuels are dead-end options, finite resources whose end will arrive very quickly.
Vegter describes hydraulic fracturing as “a perfectly ordinary industrial technique that has been in [sic] used safely and successfully around the world for many decades”. Golder Associates?the environmental organisation that prepared the EMP for Shell?says, however, that all hydraulic fracturing technology is “considered unconventional” and that it is an “innovative technology”. They also state in the EMP that because “hydraulic fracturing is a new technology in South Africa, there is little information available on its potential impacts locally”.

Ordinary? Safe?

Frederick Douglas said: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” The righteous voices of reason seem prepared to endure the demise of the planet. DM

READ MORE: WHO, Video of Cornell’s Anthony Ingraffea, One Earth, Scribd; Propublica, Scientific American; The Hill, BBC, IOL, Geological Society of America, Bloomberg, Business Report, Kathu Gazette, Natural Resources Defense Center, Live Eco, LA Times, Fracking Resource Guide, New York Times, EarthWorks, Journey of the forsaken,, ProPublica, Propublica, AlterNet, Natural Gas Well Frac Release (Part 1), and Best Online Brokers, Eastern Herald, MoneyWeb,, Cleantechies, National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, Department of Water Affairs SA, Sahara Reporters, Sahara Reporters, NBF News, CMap, Wall Street Journal,, USAfricaonline, Bloomberg Businesweek, Lexology, News Inferno, Amnesty International, Mining Weekly, Engineering News, Martin Rowe, Go Local Jamaica.

In addition, there are numerous documents in PDF format:

  • The Draft EMP Report from Golder Associates
  • The transcripts of town meetings compiled by Golder Associates
  • The Royal Dutch Shell AG Report 2010
  • The Clean Energy Progress Report 2010 (IEA)
  • Karoo Policy Objections prepared by Havemann & Associates
  • Summary of fracking reports compiled by the Sierra Club
  • Compilation of fracking documents from The Scientific American
  • The following books were also consulted:
  • American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War by Carol Gallagher
  • Geological Journeys by Norman & Whitfeld
  • The Story of Earth & Life — A Southern African Perspective by McCarthy & Rubidge
  • Various works by Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey.

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