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SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn’t object

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

An editorial in EngineerIT magazine floats the idea that a decision on shale gas drilling was delayed because of fears it might derail South Africa’s application to host the Square Kilometre Array telescope project. SKA supporters ought to be thankful Karoo residents weren’t more hostile, given the fact that its local benefits are probably less than that of “fracking”.

Imagine if Shell had waltzed into the Karoo, led by a coterie of fawning government ministers, and announced its intentions to erect steel structures in a few thousand isolated spots and build the required roads and pipes to connect them.

Then imagine the outcry if they added that a new law, especially created for them, would be used to restrain farmers and local residents from taking their trucks, tractors and farming machinery anywhere within a radius of between 11km and 30km of the sites (depending on the intervening landscape), under penalty of criminal prosecution.

Imagine if they met this outcry by telling the assembled crowd that that’s not all: arc welders and other machines that emit electro-magnetic frequency radiation, like certain kinds of electric fencing, would also be verboten.

Yet that is exactly what the Square Kilometre Array is proposing: plastering huge telescope structures all over the Karoo, and imposing strict measures on the residents of most of Northern Cape by means of the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, passed in 2007.

The SKA is an international project worth about R16-billion.It aims to erect several thousand radio telescopes radiating from a central core near Carnarvon containing about half the necessary receivers, and extending arms as far afield as Mauritius, Kenya and Ghana, in the hope of combining these individual receivers into a single virtual telescope with the largest collection area ever built.

Amid the celebration over having been awarded the largest part of the SKA project (Australia and New Zealand get to build one third) on Friday 25 May 2012, one editorial sounded a note of caution.

In EngineerIT magazine, Hans van den Groenendaal wrote a feature pulling together as much as he could find on whether shale gas drilling (known colloquially as “fracking”) and the SKA astronomy project could coexist without interference. He could not find much. He dug up an old editorial in which the SKA’s site characterisation manager, Adrian Tiplady, said he is opposed to any and all fossil fuels, and expressed the wish that shale gas drilling should “[j]ust stay away from the SKA.”

He also found an article I had written for ITWeb Brainstorm magazine, in which I asked both Shell and the SKA to explain their positions, especially as it relates to the part of one of Shell’s three prospecting blocks that overlaps the Astronomy Reserve protected by the AGA Act. In it, Shell declares itself to be in favour of the SKA project and commits itself to complying with the act.

For the SKA’s part, Tiplady expresses the view that the act would be sufficient to protect his science project: “Shale gas drilling near the site introduces a risk… If we didn’t have the act, and the co-operation of the various stakeholders, I would say it could have a potentially damaging risk.”

Given the limited information available on the subject, Van den Groenendaal’s speculation is that fracking might have been thought a threat to the SKA project, motivating the moratorium on the approval of shale gas exploration permits.

But frankly, the SKA project should be grateful that the people of the Karoo were not more hostile to it. Last year, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column in which I presented an artist’s impression of what the SKA might look like, and called for it to be banned on the basis that its surface impact would be at least as bad that of shale gas operations in the Karoo.

It was intended as a call for the environmentalists who oppose gas drilling to be consistent and oppose the SKA on the same surface-impact grounds. Some Karoo residents, indeed, did take the issue more seriously. Realising for the first time that the square kilometre in the name did not refer to its geographical extent (an error even a professor of biotechnology, Peter Rose, made in a shale gas debate in which I participated at Rhodes University), they asked whether, given that Karoo residents didn’t want gas drilling, they really wanted the SKA in their collective backyard.

Their point is valid. Some likely benefits of hosting much of the SKA project in South Africa are undeniable. It will be a fillip to South Africa’s credibility in international scientific endeavours and will boost its academic infrastructure. Some jobs and much infrastructure will be created, especially during the construction phase of the massive project. Many astronomers, computer scientists and project engineers will learn from the SKA, and contribute to its findings. As with any scientific endeavour, spinoff benefits are likely to emerge in time.

However, the SKA will likely create fewer jobs than shale gas drilling, and while science for its own sake is very appealing (as it should be), it has little immediate relevance to the economic circumstances of the many poor and unemployed Karoo residents. By contrast, domestic access to an abundant supply of inexpensive and clean natural gas will have economic impacts far broader than just the oil and gas industry, for which every South African will have reason to be grateful.

If even a small fraction of the economic benefits that the late Tony Twine of Econometrix predicted in a report commissioned by Shell are realised, the benefits of shale gas drilling will not only exceed the small and manageable risk the industry poses, but will also exceed the immediate benefits of the SKA project.

Meanwhile, unlike shale gas drilling, the SKA will have obvious negative effects on local industry as a consequence of the legal restrictions imposed on the region to protect the radio silence of the region for astronomy purposes.

Based on the limited information available, the SKA and shale gas operations can co-exist with relatively little conflict, although the SKA will likely have more serious negative impacts on the Karoo’s residents.

Instead of taking aim at the equally valid interests of prospective gas drillers in the vast and arid region, we ought to be grateful that the people of the Karoo were not whipped into a frenzy of opposition to the massive astronomy project. Professional eco-worriers would not have found it hard to do. DM


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