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Fracking gets green light, but here’s the risk

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.

Cabinet on Friday announced that it would lift the moratorium on shale gas drilling by means of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”. Exploration permits can now be issued to the petroleum companies interested in going after the Karoo’s potentially vast natural gas reserves. This is good news.

As was widely expected outside the echo chamber of radical environmentalism, South Africa’s 17-month moratorium on shale gas exploration, or “fracking”, has been lifted. 

This is good news for a number of reasons. 

The exploration phase will take many years, the first two of which will be devoted to detailed groundwater and other environmental impact assessments.

Allowing exploration to go ahead will make it possible to resolve the few real unknowns about Karoo shale gas, such as how much gas there really is, and whether very deep saline groundwater under pressure poses a threat of pollution to shallow freshwater, as one scientist – whom we met in previous columns – claimed.

Let’s all hope the news is good, because an economic impact study by the late Tony Twine of Econometrix concluded that even producing 20 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas, which is a small fraction of the reserve geologists believe is technically recoverable from Karoo shale – could be worth billions of rand to the economy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs, if you count all the indirect effects. 

It is always reasonable to be sceptical of economic forecasts, but if even a tenth of the anticipated benefits materialise, it would be worth going ahead. Unemployment in some Karoo towns can run as high as 90%, according to Roelof Bezuidenhout, a journalist for Farmer’s Weekly, and in many towns, welfare grants may outstrip farming as a source of income. 

“Karoo people have always joked that the only hope for their dorpe [small towns] lies in finding oil,” he wrote, “but that the only oil here is the leak under Uncle Tommy’s car.”

That may explain why the Karoo Shale Gas Community Forum, a coalition of small farmers, unions, church and youth groups, has distanced itself from the environmentalists who oppose shale gas, to voice cautious support for taking advantage of the economic stimulus it would provide to the region.

The supposed risks, on the other hand, are endlessly overdramatised by the environmental movement. Even when lobbies like the Treasure the Karoo Action Group are made aware of the dubious research on which they base their claims, they continue to advance the same propaganda in public statements and submissions to government.

For the last 18 months I have been immersed in independent research and regulatory reports, testing every major claim that opponents of shale gas drilling have made. It turns out that all of the environmental lobby’s claims about fracking are either false or exaggerated.

Tap water you can set alight? Methane in well water is nothing new, is easy to deal with, is not dangerous to human health other than as a fire risk, and in many cases occurred long before anyone started drilling.

Poisonous chemicals in fracking fluid? Sure. Industry is full of those. But you need to be exposed to chemicals before they are dangerous. That’s why we don’t drink anti-freeze or Handy Andy, both of which contain some of the chemicals that anti-fracking activists say are guaranteed to harm people or livestock.

Polluted groundwater, then? Even a Duke University research team that set out to find confirmation for their bias, by searching systematically for evidence of pollution in water wells near fracking sites, found only methane, and couldn’t find any of the tell-tale chemicals used in fracking fluid. Besides, there are new fracking products on the market that are so safe you can drink them.

Surface spills? Sure, they happen, and it isn’t great when they do. When a milk truck falls off a bridge, it kills everything in the river, but we don’t call for a ban on dairy farming. We impose safety rules and handling regulations to minimise the risks to the public and the environment associated with milk production, transportation, storage and waste. A small risk of localised pollution is a manageable problem.

Gas is worse for global warming than coal? Every primary study bar one says otherwise. That paper, written by committed anti-gas campaigners from Cornell University, was denounced even by the Clean Air Task Force, a green group which is strongly opposed to all fossil fuels, as “unrealistic” and “selective in its use of some very questionable data”. If even committed green scientists think it’s rubbish, why does the Treasure the Karoo Action Group continue to punt it on its campaign website?

Using millions of litres of water in a water-stressed region? Sure, but even in Texas, shale gas uses only 1.7% of the available water. To put “millions of litres” into perspective, half a percent of the capacity of the Vaal Dam is enough to frack 6,000 wells, which is around the upper limit of the number of wells the entire Karoo might eventually accommodate. Every year, South Africa’s 430 golf courses use enough water to frack 15,000 wells. 

Meanwhile, where environmentalists see only problems, engineers see solutions. The industry has developed mobile water treatment units designed especially to deal with fracking flowback, which differs in important ways from the wastewater for which ordinary treatment plants were designed. Shell has committed not to compete with Karoo residents for water, and has floated a number of options, including the clever idea of using unusable brackish water from much deeper than normal water wells go, and then treating it to produce more fresh water than the Karoo has ever seen. By all means be sceptical of such claims, but that it is even possible makes the opposite extreme appear very unlikely indeed. Some companies are even touting a new fracking technique that doesn’t use any water at all. Technology does not stand still.

The most recent complaint from the eco-lobby is that fracking will destroy the roads, agriculture and tourism industries in the Karoo. This is preposterous. Sure, all industry requires roads. Last I checked, we don’t ban industry because it uses roads. If it is really necessary, just impose a usage fee. Second, completed wellheads are no more conspicuous than a typical farm dam and windmill. A few thousand shale gas wells will all but vanish in the barren vastness that is the Great Karoo. Finally, agriculture in the Karoo is a very low-density business, and it is hardly buzzing with dollar-spending tourists. Neither business is likely to conflict much with alternative industries spread out over the Karoo, like the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project or shale gas drilling.

Environmentalists also argue that the government is incapable of enforcing regulations designed to protect private property and the environment. It’s not as bad here as in Nigeria, but sure, laws designed to protect people’s rights are not perfectly enforced in South Africa. Mineral rights have been nationalised, and the state is now responsible for protecting the rights of residents. That is most certainly a cause for concern, but that is an argument against nationalising mineral rights. It is not a rational reason to prohibit the government from exploiting those nationalised resources for the good of the country. Moreover, the logic that the government isn’t very good at enforcing laws could be used to prohibit any mining, manufacturing, financial and agricultural activity at all, including supposedly “green” industries. Weakness in protecting rights is a reason to write better rules and improve the capacity of our regulatory administrators and judicial system, but it is not a reason to ban the very industries we rely on for economic growth and poverty alleviation.

Corruption? Now we’re talking. This ought to be a far bigger concern than any exaggerated environmental fears. As with any other business involving the government, palms will be greased and sweetheart deals will be done. Even this, however, is not sufficient reason to oppose an industry. It is a reason to be watchful, and to stamp out corruption.

The time has come for rational heads to prevail. It is sensible to permit an industry that will have great benefits, at the cost of small, manageable risks. Let’s focus our investigative resources and watchdog energies on the real danger: that a government that owns the mineral rights and issues the licences will be tempted by bribery and vulnerable to corruption. DM

PS. If you’re interested in more detailed information, including many pages worth of references in support of these arguments, check out my new book, Extreme Environment. Its first three chapters are entirely devoted to the fracking controversy.


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