Defend Truth


Fracking: Debating a big deal

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.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival last weekend, I had another opportunity to debate Jonathan Deal, the environmental activist opposed to shale gas drilling in the Karoo who recently shot to world fame for winning a rich environmental prize. I didn’t come away from the debate with the usual feeling that I had missed opportunities, but it did raise some issues that are worth closer examination.

The school hall in Franschhoek was filled to capacity with visitors to the annual literary festival. The faces were uniformly white, the hair predominantly grey, and the clothes tasteful. I had just driven 650km from a talk I had delivered the previous night at Moneyweb’s Ibandla retreat for company CEOs and chairmen. I was exhausted, but felt well-prepared and confident in my position. Anticipation of high drama hung in the still, warm air of this pretty, wealthy town.

The situation stands as follows. Several companies, among them Shell and Anglo, have applied for permits to explore the Ecca Shale of the Karoo Basin for natural gas. To extract it will require deep wells, which are then turned horizontally to follow the shale layer, combined with hydraulic fracturing, which is a process to coax the tightly-bound methane out of the host rock. This process was the subject of a moratorium until last year, while the government studied the safety of the process. That moratorium has been lifted, and exploration permits will soon be issued, although permission for even exploratory fracturing will only be granted once environmental impact assessments have found that it is safe to do so given the underlying hydrology and geology of the targeted sites. This process will take several years, and large-scale production will likely only commence a decade from now, once gas companies are satisfied of the viability of the resource, and regulators are satisfied of the environmental safety of the drilling.

I have spent two years researching the information that is available, especially from the US, where a shale gas boom has cut greenhouse gas emissions to near 1990 levels, slashed pollution from electricity generation by dethroning coal as the primary source of power, reduced energy prices, and raised industrial productivity compared to rival economies more dependent on green energy, such as Germany and Japan.

I have also studied the claims of environmental risk asserted by activist groups, and declared myself to be cautiously in favour of exploiting our potentially vast shale gas reserves. I believe the risks are minimal and manageable, and an abundant domestic source of natural gas has the potential to relieve South Africa’s electricity crisis, lower the cost of energy, present gas and liquid petroleum export opportunities, create local jobs, and stimulate domestic industry.

Ranged against me, under the chairmanship of newly-appointed Financial Mail editor Tim Cohen, was Jonathan Deal, the head of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), and Cormac Cullinan, an environmental lawyer who believes nature ought to have rights equal to those of humans.

Unbeknownst to the audience, Cullinan was on Deal’s payroll, so it was no mystery which side he might take. I neglected to bring a lawyer of my own to balance the scales, but if I had, I might have chosen Kallie Erasmus, a long-time environmental lawyer and activist. He told us during a debate last year that South African environmental legislation is both modern and robust. If the TKAG is right, he argued, exploration and the associated environmental impact assessments would soon make its claims patently obvious and indisputable. If it is wrong, however, it is denying South Africans an opportunity to stimulate direct economic activity and take advantage of a plentiful, clean and efficient source of electricity.

Despite my lack of lawyerly representation, I didn’t come away from the debate with the usual feeling that I had missed opportunities, or omitted important facts. There was no formal vote, but while many in the audience were clearly partisan green activists, I thought my position, which was that of taking a rational middle ground, was well received.

Notably, the chairman asked Deal if he would support shale gas drilling if only 5% of the Karoo were affected, and no water pollution occurred. He put his foot down firmly, and answered no. Turning to me, Cohen asked whether I would still favour shale gas drilling if 10% of the Karoo were harmed, and groundwater were polluted. I pondered this unlikely prospect, and answered equally firmly: no.

I noted that the risks of shale gas drilling were certainly no worse than any other mining or industrial process, and that the benefits would likely be significant. Perhaps Deal’s recent comment to the media, that the onus is not on him to prove any harm will occur, was motivated by the fact that the objections to shale gas drilling have one by one crumbled under the weight of independent evidence, regulatory investigations, and failed lawsuits. Little more than anecdotal claims, emotive appeals and green-energy idealism remains for anti-fracking activists to hang their arguments upon.

When I pointed out these facts, I was amused to hear my opponents concede first my facts, and then my logic, but baldly assert, without any countervailing evidence or reasoning, that my conclusions were wrong.

I don’t want to re-argue my position here in detail, but the debate raised some interesting issues that are worth closer examination. I propose to do that in this and perhaps a few future columns.

A member of the audience, whom I recognised as journalist Toby Shapshak, stridently denounced me as naïve for ignoring the threat of corruption between the government and gas drilling companies. He clearly had not read the column I wrote when the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing was lifted, however, in which I clearly warned of exactly this risk.

Deal grabbed at the opening, and used corruption as another reason to oppose shale gas drilling. Admittedly, opposing corruption is a valid and honourable position to take. I have done so frequently myself, and am the first to raise alarm bells when government and private companies conspire behind closed doors how best to get rich. I certainly am under no illusions that this particular industry will be miraculously free of kickbacks, bribes and exclusivity deals. After all, the government owns the mineral rights it expropriated from landowners.

But the fight over mineral rights was lost 10 years ago. It is not a valid reason to now oppose the government’s use of those rights in the best interests of the country. More pertinently, corruption is not a practical reason to oppose an industry. If it were, we could not permit any industry at all – banking, agriculture, construction, aviation, coal, nuclear, transport, telecommunications, textiles, motor manufacturing – all would have to be banned.

A striking aspect of the debate was the apparent hostility shown by Deal towards not only me, but also to members of the audience who asked critical questions. One asked how the TKAG accounts for anecdotes that contradict those that environmental activists hold up as representative and universal.

For the sake of full disclosure, I do know the questioner, Signe Rousseau, as the wife of another Daily Maverick columnist, Jacques Rousseau. I had not spoken with her for over a year, until we met after the debate. She is a highly qualified lecturer at Cape Town University’s School of Management Studies, and counts media studies and critical media literacy among her research interests. Frankly, I thought her to be an opponent of shale gas drilling, and did not even recognise her from a distance when she asked her question.

It appears that Rousseau saw a documentary entitled FrackNation, by independent Irish journalist Phelim McAleer. This film exposes Josh Fox, the maker of the anti-fracking film Gasland, as a dishonest and evasive propagandist, and the subjects of his film as a handful of litigants hoping to win millions in damages awards, but who are entirely unrepresentative of the majority in their communities. This, presumably, inspired her scepticism of Deal’s claims.

Visibly irritated and even angry during the debate, Deal afterwards approached Rousseau in what she describes as a “menacing” and “rude” manner. He demanded to know who she had been speaking to and why she was pro-fracking, as if that were some sort of insult.

“I replied that I wasn’t,” she told me via email, “but I am anti fear-mongering, which is what I believe that he is doing.”

She tells me Deal and his wife continued to harangue Rousseau and her husband for some time, demanding credentials and going on about how little they know, and how Deal does not even get paid for it.

There is considerable irony in this exchange, since Deal’s debate argument made a big deal of a recent environmental prize he won, contributing over R1 million to his cause. The prize came with a five-week tour of the United States, a meeting with US President Barack Obama, and, if Deal is to be believed, with long evenings talking to people who oppose shale gas drilling, while drinking Coors. Admittedly, American lager might disturb the equanimity of even the most rational among us.

His emphasis on the anecdotes from this tour, and meetings with highly-placed politicians, caused me to wonder how the audience would respond if I had accepted a R1 million prize from the oil and gas lobby, and accompanied its spin doctors on a carefully stage-managed tour of only the sites the lobby wanted me to see and only the people it wanted me to meet.

I’d expect that I’d be laughed out of the house as a shill. As it is, this defamatory accusation was publicly made against me by TKAG committee member Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor, who claimed that if I wasn’t paid by Shell, I must work for the ANC. (For what it’s worth, the only income I earn is from my publishers, for writing, and occasionally from speaking. The only formal communication I’ve ever received from Shell is a letter to deny any association with me. I haven’t bothered Luthuli House with a request for a similar denial of this ludicrous, ad hominem and false accusation.)

It did, however, make me wonder how I could expand my own primary research about shale gas drilling. I’ve become deeply involved in the debate and follow the relevant science and regulatory developments very closely. I’ve visited several Karoo towns at my own expense to speak to the locals. A more extensive tour to the Karoo, the US, and perhaps other shale gas hotspots such as the UK and Poland, would be most instructive, provided that it is not funded by a lobby group, whether for or against shale gas drilling. It would be good if I did my job as an independent journalist, rather than as an activist or shill. It would be useful if I were not led by the nose by spin doctors for the green lobby, the gas lobby, or indeed any other lobby that takes a position on the matter, such as the coal lobby, which doesn’t particularly like the threat from shale gas either.

Perhaps I won’t get to meet President Barack Obama, but my integrity is worth more to me than a framed status symbol on my wall. DM


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