Opinionista Ivo Vegter 26 June 2013

The Karoo desperately needs development

Every time I visit towns along the N12, they are a little more dilapidated and desperate. This is the backdrop, the quiet tragedy, against which wealthy elites protest the potential development of shale gas resources.

My latest trip through the Karoo has done little to convince me that fears about shale gas drilling justify blocking the economic development of the region. On the contrary, the towns and rural areas need a boost, and urgently. The ill-founded, misinformed, and short-sighted fears of the environmentalist elite cannot trump the needs of local businesses and communities.

I’m on the road, to host a few self-funded talks and screenings of a documentary entitled FrackNation, in which independent Irish journalist Phelim McAleer thoroughly debunks the exaggerated claims of air and water pollution that Josh Fox attributes to shale gas drilling in the film Gasland.

The towns in the Karoo that I often visit on driving tours look more and more dilapidated and desperate with every visit. A camp site that brought back pleasant memories is now a ratty, dangerous-looking place, surrounded by litter, scrap metal and broken bottles. A hotel that plays host to a lovely travel tale is now shuttered, the dingy off-sale liquor store next door a sad parody of the vast wooden bar that once supported the elbows of more prosperous townsfolk.

In the Thembelihle municipality, which includes Hopetown and Strydenburg, the housing backlog is rising. Its integrated development plan notes 24 priorities for the municipality, but 119 priorities for the community. The shopping list is long, and ranges from poor infrastructure and inadequate sanitation, to overcrowded schools and poor emergency services, to understaffed hospitals and no fire brigade at all, to a need for engineering bursaries. And all that is before they reach the general poverty alleviation and job creation clauses.

All of these could be addressed by a significant new source of industrial activity and tax revenue.

Ubuntu municipality, covering the area around Victoria West, has not published an annual report since 2009/10, presumably as a consequence of the weaknesses identified in that report: poor implementation of policy, poor commitment by some members of the municipality, responsibility being taken by only certain members of the municipality, lack of training, lack of implementation of resolutions, negative councillors, unproductive personnel, not enough personnel, poor supervision of personnel and, ahem, lack of reporting. What it did report was high levels of crime, unemployment and poverty, and the unrealised opportunity of unexploited mineral resources.

The municipality’s mission is modest: “We, Ubuntu Municipality, commit ourselves to be developmentally and economically viable, to ensure a better life for all.”

“Viable.” They just want to survive. That is all.

My trip coincided with the beginning of school holidays. Even so, all guest houses had vacancies, shopkeepers were bored, and restaurants largely empty. The dire state of Karoo towns – other than the handful that have attracted fashionable elites seeking to escape the dreary luxury of their wealthy lives – confirms the findings in the official documents: the region is in dire need of economic opportunities and development.

Shale gas development promises to bring a significant level of activity to the region. While the wells themselves will be dwarfed by the vastness of the region, the benefits to local municipality coffers, employment, infrastructure construction, shops and accommodation venues will be significant. Even if the estimates of last year’s economic impact study, commissioned by Shell, prove to be ten times too optimistic, the benefits will be massive in the context of the region’s low population and high poverty.

The development of shale gas could also have major benefits for a cleaner, more efficient energy sector, according to many sources. Burnt for electricity, it emits 50% of the greenhouse gases, and almost none of the toxic pollutants of coal. Meanwhile, even rich countries that have been trying to adopt renewable energy policies are failing, because those sources remain experimental, uneconomic and unreliable. Instead, they’re forced to turn back to dirty coal.

And while South Africa’s electricity prices are rising rapidly, to job-destroying levels more familiar in the rich world, the US consistently out-performs the rest of the world, not only in low energy prices, but also in emission reductions. The reasons, beside the economic downturn that affected everyone? Higher levels of competition between different energy sources, and rapid development of shale gas.

At the Cape Town screening of FrackNation, which was attended by many scientists and engineers, the questions revealed that academics generally have a good understanding of the technology, and engineers do not fear the process of shale gas drilling. However, the general public remains heavily influenced by environmental propaganda about speculative avenues of pollution.

Meanwhile, the quest for credible cases of pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing in the US continues. Many claims are settled out of court, and while the ensuing non-disclosure agreements often raise suspicions, one cannot make either positive or negative claims about them. They do not prove that pollution did happen, nor do they prove that there were no problems to worry about. They prove only that claimants were happy with the settlement, and that damages therefore could not have been serious enough to pursue further.

If any cases of pollution are confirmed, they would not prove that groundwater pollution is inevitable, or even likely, but merely that it is possible in very rare cases. So far, even that very limited goal, which would be so useful to the emotive rhetoric of anti-fracking propagandists, seems to be out of reach.

The search by environmentalists and green-minded scientists for pollution to blame on gas drilling companies is not going well.

Researchers Robert Jackson, Stephen Osborn and Avner Vengosh, from Duke University, released a third study claiming that they found methane levels to be higher in a small number of drinking water wells located near drilling operations. The worst cases recorded methane levels six times higher than normal, which differs significantly from their own earlier results, which claimed levels up to 17 times higher. As before, no definitive causal link was found, and the study once again calls for further research into the potential pathways of methane migration, if indeed drilling operations themselves, rather than merely location and geology, are the source of the stray gas.

Previously, the EPA ceased an investigation into a Texas claim of methane migration into drinking water, and the resulting court case was thrown out, harshly denouncing the plantiff, Steve Lipsky, for conspiring with Alisa Rich of Wolf Eagle Environmental to defraud Range Resources by manufacturing misleading video evidence. Lipsky claimed $5.6 million in damages, which seems a sweet motive to make exaggerated contamination claims, but the company has since responded with a $3 million counter-suit for defamation. The case remains controversial, and is still under appeal, but it remains a rare example, and still involves only natural gas.

Methane occurs commonly in water wells, as Prof Gerrit van Tonder of the Free State University’s Institute for Groundwater Studies pointed out to me. It is a fire hazard, but it is not toxic in drinking water and is routinely flashed off in vented storage tanks before consumption.

The sole case in which US regulators have claimed that drinking water might have been polluted by shale gas drilling itself, rather than by ordinary risks associated with surface spills that can relatively easily be prevented and cleaned up, appears to be falling apart.

That case, in Pavillion, Wyoming, was thrown into doubt after the Environmental Protection Agency dropped its two-year probe after facing steep criticism for flawed procedures and methodologies. The importance of this case was that it was the first to base its evidence not merely on methane migration claims, but on the detection of 2-butoxy-ethanol, a chemical that has many potential sources, including liquid hand soap, but is also used in shale fracturing operations.

Not having to concede the Pavillion case will make it much easier to support my own cautiously positive views during future question-and-answer sessions about shale gas drilling.

One audience member wanted to know, if we do not have to fear the dangers claimed by environmental lobby groups and in films such as Gasland, what risks we do have to fear. I replied that dangers do exist, as they do – and often much more severely – with any industrial or mining process. Some of them, such as water quality and dust on grazing, are very important to local farmers. However, most risks of shale gas drilling appeared to be small and manageable, and gas drilling companies would likely be able to mitigate them to comply with public demands and regulatory requirements.

It was striking how eager this fellow was to fear something – anything – rather than to concede that the claimed risks turned out to be overblown, and do not justify blocking the development of a productive resource.

The companies angling for exploration licences have made several commitments that they ought to kept to. Among them is to disclose the composition of fracturing fluids, to use the latest technology to minimise the risk of pollution, to recycle or safely dispose of waste-water, and not to compete with local residents for fresh water, but favouring brackish water or even seawater instead.

They need to meet these commitments, in addition to regulatory risk mitigation and accident clean-up requirements. Unfortunately, some environmental lobby groups have lost all credibility to hold them accountable, and this job will fall to independent journalists, responsible regulators, and more constructive environmental groups.

For example, Jonathan Deal, the head of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, told the media: “The onus is not on me to prove that it’s dangerous. If they want to change the status quo, they’ve got to prove that it’s a good change.”

This comment is richly ironic. It’s supremely convenient, in that despite being lauded internationally for his activism, he has not actually demonstrated that significant harm will befall the Karoo if shale gas drilling is permitted.

More importantly, wealthy environmentalists who simply fold their arms, stamp their feet, and shake their heads, are turning a blind eye to the poverty and despair in the Karoo. The well-being of the people of the Karoo is at grave risk, right now, from the status quo.

The Karoo’s paint is flaking, the signs are fading, the walls are cracking and the implements are rusting. It makes for great photographs of the timeless Karoo, but it is not a story of rising human welfare.

There is a saying in the Karoo that only an oil strike can save their towns, but the only oil is the puddle in the driveway. With shale gas, they have struck something both more plentiful and more environmentally friendly than oil. It is in great demand, both locally to alleviate our electricity crisis and boost our industrial productivity, and for export to countries that want to build growing economies on efficient, clean energy.

It is past time that the desperate status quo of Karoo towns does get changed. DM


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