Where has the time gone
18 January 2017 01:24 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Was I wrong about acid rain?

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    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. He is seldom wrong.

When you write a wide-ranging book on a controversial subject, there is always a risk that somewhere, in one paragraph among 80,000 words, you’ll make an error. If you do, your opponents will bludgeon you with it, but even if not, setting the record straight is simply honest. By IVO VEGTER.

“I am told many of the facts in Ivo Vegter’s new book Extreme Environment are wrong, notably on the page attached,” an environmentally-minded reader wrote.

Her correspondent was Chris Hartnady, a former associate professor in geology at the University of Cape Town and now a private hydro-geology consultant. He was kind enough to copy me on his response, but since the query went behind my back, I’ll withhold the name of the reader.

Of course, I knew the page in question was going to be page 27. I knew it would be page 27 even before Extreme Environment was on sale. Within days of its publication on 5 September, professor Gerrit van Tonder of the Institute for Groundwater Studies at the University of the Free State, tweeted the expected confirmation: page 27 was a problem. It wasn’t long before Tony Weaver at the Cape Times marred the otherwise very favourable reception of my book with a rather negative column, the substance of which was based on page 27.

In part because journalists accept the rigour of correcting the record in public, and in part because I accused certain environmentalists of failing to correct their own mistakes when they are pointed out, I promptly and publicly acknowledged, in each case, the extent of the error, the reason for the error and what, if anything, it changes about the overall argument.

This, another reader considered a “shocking level of journalism”. I could note that claiming “many facts…are wrong” when only one such fact is offered as evidence is also fairly shoddy, and typical of the kind of environmental exaggeration that the book is about, but I don’t want to get into tit-for-tat name-calling.

So, to page 27. On that page, I devoted a paragraph to glossing over the hydrology of brine aquifers that might exist at the very deep levels where hydraulic fracturing in shale gas drilling takes place. 

My purpose with the relevant chapters of the book was not so much to make a case in favour of shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo, as to critique the environmental lobby’s case against it. The movement of deep brines into near-surface aquifers had hitherto been a fringe issue, and it had never been raised as a potential problem in the Karoo. In making the point that surface spills are a far greater threat to freshwater aquifers than upward migration of brines and chemicals from several kilometres deep, it did not seem necessary to burden my generalisation about water running downhill under gravity with caveats such as artesian water, siphoning, or capillary action.

Weaver accused me of “elastic use of science”, citing my failure to address an unpublished paper by Van Tonder in which he claimed that deep brine aquifers not only exist in the Karoo, but are under so much pressure that they will migrate several kilometres up through so-called “preferential pathways”, to contaminate shallow groundwater if they were to be pierced by boreholes. That hydraulic fracturing in the pursuit of shale gas would pollute freshwater aquifers was “100% certain”, Van Tonder told the media.

I addressed this startling claim as soon as Van Tonder went public with his findings, in a Daily Maverick column. At the time, I was the only journalist that did not just accept his word for it, but asked him for a copy of his paper, in light of the haste with which he made sensational public claims based on unpublished, non-peer-reviewed, incomplete work. A follow-up column quoted some other hydrologists, who told me they were “mystified” by Van Tonder’s sudden and public “u-turn” about shale gas drilling.

I immediately thought of page 27. How unfortunate that Van Tonder made these claims only after the book had gone to print. If Weaver had had the courtesy of contacting me about it, I might have pointed this out. If my inability to bend the Arrow of Time constitutes an “elastic use of science”, I concede.

Had I delved deeper into what at the time was a non-issue, as I did for the columns about Van Tonder’s paper, I would certainly have added that some water aquifers can be “artesian”, which happens when it is contained in a porous rock layer that lies below an impermeable layer. A borehole that pierces this seal will encounter water gushing out under pressure – as opposed to a so-called water-table well, which is not under positive pressure. 

Even in an artesian system, the water still technically runs downhill, of course, because it enters the permeable rock layer by rainfall some distance from the well, at a higher altitude than where the borehole pierces the aquifer. Gravity causes the pressure. However, I accept that it would have been more correct to describe how water moves through a porous medium from higher to lower “pressure”, rather than “elevation”, and regret the error.

About the validity and implications of Van Tonder’s claims, much remains to be seen. As matters stand, with the paper incomplete and unpublished to this day, it is mere speculation based on limited evidence and some creative computer modelling. Further research may be needed to discover whether the Karoo’s unique geology really does imply there are particular locations where shale gas drilling would be too risky, and if so, whether it is possible to isolate and avoid them.

Van Tonder said he is engaged in field research at one of five Soekor boreholes drilled many decades ago, which might provide anecdotal evidence for his claim. He recently advised me to speak again with the lead hydrologist of the Karoo Groundwater Atlas project, Peter Rosewarne, quoted in the second column linked above as being highly skeptical about Van Tonder’s claims. Van Tonder predicted that I would find he had succeeded in changing Rosewarne’s mind.

Rosewarne politely declined to go into specifics, but responded broadly as he had the first time. He said that deep Karoo aquifers, if they even exist, are not well understood. “In my opinion,” he said, “it is therefore premature for anyone to profess to ‘know’ that this or that will happen or offer firm opinions; much of it is just conjecture and cannot be more than an uneducated guess at this stage.”

There is much still to learn about this issue, and many reasons to be skeptical of Van Tonder’s broad claims. For his part, he is holding his ground, declaring that he is “now more than 100% sure” (sic) that he was correct and that professors Philip Lloyd of the Energy Research Centre of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Mike Muller, of the National Planning Commission and the Water Institute of South Africa, were wrong.

Meanwhile, a Karoo Groundwater Expert Group has been established, which will carefully study all existing work, consider input from many stakeholders, and conduct further research where necessary to answer any unknowns. This will form part of an elaborate environmental impact assessment, prior to actual hydraulic fracturing beginning. 

“There will be plenty of time to disseminate sound scientific findings as the research unfolds,” said Rosewarne, and I expect that a future column will get much more deeply into what now is a hot-button issue, however technical, in the shale gas story.

One notable oversight in a book would be serious enough, so it was with dismay that I read an otherwise complimentary email about my book from the aforementioned Philip Lloyd, in which he highlighted two more questionable sections. He had the courtesy to do so privately, but claims of error always deserve a public airing if one hopes one’s arguments to be taken seriously and in good faith. So, here goes full disclosure.

My sharp-eyed and perceptive editor had suggested that I include a section on the successes of environmentalists, lest I appear vindictive in my critique of their many errors. This seemed a fair request, so I wrote a section headlined, “Go on, be nice” (see page 216). Among the successes of environmental lobbying, I cited the successful campaigns against acid rain and CFCs. Acid rain was ostensibly caused by sulphur and nitrogen compounds emitted by coal-fired power stations and auto emissions, which was said to harm lakes, rivers and leafy vegetation. CFCs, the refrigerant and aerosol constituent supposedly responsible for the hole in the ozone layer, were banned by the Montreal Treaty, which has been a model for environmental treaties ever since.

I did qualify both cases by noting that “there is some controversy over the extent to which this rare claim of environmental success is true” in one case, and “the threat was certainly exaggerated” in the other.

Lloyd, however, believes that those qualifications are insufficient. “Once the Montreal Protocol was put to bed, the team migrated almost lock, stock and barrel to the (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The rider to the Montreal story is that we sacrificed the world’s finest refrigerants – and therefore have to produce more power and more CO2 to do the same job. It would have been so much easier to set up CFC recycling, but the greens wouldn’t hear of it.”

On acid rain, he is even more scathing: “It is all a figment of some people’s imaginations, yet schoolchildren are taught it as gospel.”

I certainly was taught it, and even those who didn’t pay attention at school will recall Wendy Oldfield’s haunting lyrics: “Acid rain keeps falling down, burning holes into the ground.”

In support of his claim that acid rain was in truth just another example of environmental exaggeration, Lloyd sent me two of his published papers. Though clearly written from the perspective of the energy industry, which is always due cause for skepticism, they make for fascinating reading.

They argue that the harmful effects of acid rain were wildly exaggerated, that acidification was in many cases a return to historical norms after widespread alkalinity induced by slash-and-burn agriculture and other industrial-revolution pollution, that nature has proven itself to be fairly resilient in the face of water acidification and that the regulatory counter-measures, while significantly increasing the cost of energy, cannot objectively be shown to have had significant benefits that would justify these costs.

If true, this argument makes a strong case that far from being too hard on the environmental lobby, I inadvertently went too far when I tried to defend their proudest achievements. If so, I must apologise to my readers. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    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. He is seldom wrong.

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