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22 July 2017 12:57 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The obstructionism of shale gas activists

  • 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.

The minister of trade and industry has injected some urgency into the process to permit shale gas exploration. In response, the activists ranged against this industry have threatened legal obstructionism to delay the process. They’ll fail, but that is cold comfort when delays are something South Africa can ill afford.

A “beauty spot”, the Guardian calls it, “dating back hundreds of millions of years”. With all due respect to the journalist who wrote the piece (and probably didn’t write the headline), the Karoo he talks about is twice the size of the UK. Some beauty spot. And most other land on Earth can claim a similar age.

So why the flowery language? It’s simple, really. These are typical examples of the emotive rhetoric deployed in the debate about shale gas. The implication is that this untouched wilderness will be substantially harmed by shale gas drilling.

The story reports on the announcement by trade and industry minister Red Rob Davies last week after a Cabinet meeting, that shale gas exploration would be given the go-ahead, probably before the elections in 2014. Nowhere are you likely to read that the Karoo, far from being an untouched wilderness, has already been changed dramatically by human activity. First, hunters wiped out much of the large game roaming the vast plains, and then farmers arrived with sheep to crop the grassland, fundamentally changing the region’s flora diversity, and reducing it to the scrubby vistas we know and love today. That does not mean that the Karoo is not worthy of conservation, of course, but what environmentalists propose to protect is not some ideal of untouched nature.

Rarely will you read that the rise of horizontal drilling in the last 25 years has not only made shale exploitation possible, but it has also dramatically reduced the need for well-heads at the surface.

Few newspaper articles note that energy alternatives – coal mining, uranium mining and rare-earth mineral mining – are all substantially more invasive and environmentally destructive. Strip-mining is also an option for the Karoo, of course. It contains large uranium deposits, for example, which would be ideal for our new nuclear power programme.

There is no mention of the fact that the anti-fracking activists have failed to show any systematic cases of groundwater pollution with fracking chemicals, anywhere in the world, and that even their anecdotal claims to this effect are suspect. At best, such claims point to avoidable risks that regulators need to be aware of before permitting production. At worst, they’re fraudulent attempts to extort settlements from deep-pocketed companies.

Discredited anti-fracking claims, such as that shale gas as a source of electricity is worse for climate change than coal because too much of the stuff gas companies hope to sell escapes, instead, into the atmosphere, are also not mentioned. In truth, burning gas emits only about half the carbon dioxide of coal, and almost completely eliminates pollutants such as sulphur compounds, nitrogen oxides and particulates.

It used to be thought impossible to reduce pollution and carbon emissions on one hand, and reduce electricity prices on the other. Gas can do this. What’s not to like?

Economically, using shale gas as a source of electricity in South Africa is a no-brainer. Gavin Keeton, who argued in favour of shale gas at a debate against Jonathan Deal at the Rhodes University Anti-Fracking Week in Grahamstown on 15 August 2013 (full disclosure, so did I), wrote an excellent summary of the economic case for shale gas exploration.

As an aside, the beauty of that debate was that Deal had proposed, as the debate proposition, the following: “Having regard for the holistic environment, the efficacy of shale gas mining has not been sufficiently proven to justify the issue of licences for exploration or production.”

Both Prof Keeton and I noted what a curious statement that was. The efficacy of shale gas mining is not a matter of debate, but of fact. It works. It produces shale gas. And once mined, gas itself also works. In the US, it has dethroned King Coal as the primary source of electricity. It has turned 20th century geopolitics of oil on its head and almost overnight made the US a net petroleum exporter. The OPEC countries with their cheap oil, Russia with its cheap conventional gas and coal mines the world over think shale gas is from the devil. Curious bedfellows for the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) to have. The gas industry employs tens of thousands of people, and saves industry and consumers hundreds of billions of dollars on their energy bills.

And whatever we don’t yet know about the Karoo’s reserves and groundwater environment we can only discover by means of exploration. Banning exploration until we know more is the most obtuse, unscientific position statement I’ve ever had the pleasure to debate against.

The South African government is proposing to spend R3.6-trillion on various infrastructure projects, including as much as R1-trillion on nuclear power. Municipalities are underfunded, overseeing decaying infrastructure. Meanwhile, the cost of generating electricity from gas is cheaper even than coal, and half the price of on-shore wind farms. Foreign investors are clamouring to risk their own capital on shale gas exploration, rather than the government having to tender to get the work done at taxpayer expense. Better yet, they’ll pay the government in royalties and taxes, as well as any other conditions placed upon them in return for permitting exploration and production, such as building roads or helping to maintain water infrastructure.

The TKAG has vowed to take the government to court, on what appears to be purely procedural grounds. It claims a lack of consultation, and notes that many people in the Karoo do not know what “fracking” is. This seems rich, coming from a group that shot to fame for its participation in public meetings hosted by applicants for shale gas exploration licences, and independently organised debates involving, among many others, your humble correspondent. This is rich, for a campaign whose stickers and posters are plastered everywhere you turn in the Karoo.

Perhaps not everyone has heard of it, but then again not everyone is a dedicated follower of the news. The TKAG, and its partner against shale gas exploration, the Afrikaner rights group Afriforum (speaking of curious bedfellows), make much of a series of interviews conducted with anonymous strangers about shale gas drilling. But anecdotes do not a court case make. If their interviews have any evidentiary value, I’d like to use them as evidence that the public is being misled by the TKAG.

The video montage they made of these interviews shows several people either claiming ignorance, or parroting the misinformation fed to them by the activists. Take the (unnamed) fellow who talks about an “aerial shot” of fracking. Undoubtedly, he refers to the laminated photo with which Jonathan Deal, CEO of the TKAG, was once spotted on television, and which used to appear on a website called KarooSpace (but has since been removed). A similar image still appears on the Water Rhapsody website, run by Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor, a committee member of the TKAG.

The trouble with the supposed aerial photograph of “fracking” is that it isn’t of a shale gas play at all. It is an image taken by the activist group SkyTruth of the Jonah Field in Wyoming, a tight sands operation. It is one of the most productive fields in the world, with uncommonly dense well spacing even for vertical drilling. It covers about 85 square kilometres, which is the size of a small town, and soon gets lost on a satellite view that shows it in relation to the town of Pinedale, 50km to its north. The Karoo won’t look anything like that photograph.

If images are to sway the undecided, however, allow me to offer for your consideration another gas field that was fracked, in Germany. There are eleven gas wells in this image. See how they destroy the bucolic farm landscape?

Elsewhere in the TKAG video, the claim is made that shale gas drilling involves “over 500 poisonous chemicals”. It doesn’t, not any more than your pool uses all the chemicals in your pool shop, or your kitchen is cleaned with all the chemicals at the supermarket. It uses perhaps a dozen. And only a few are poisonous. Many of them no more than the pool or household chemicals used by the sort of people who happily use grey water to irrigate their garden, with blithe disregard for its impact on the local groundwater aquifers.

The question with chemicals is not whether they’re poisonous. Almost everything is poisonous in some degree. It is how they are handled, what potential routes of exposure exist, and if exposed, what dose you’re likely to get.

The video states as fact that shale gas drilling “[leaves] the water table contaminated and poisoned”, and “rendered completely useless”. These are flat-out lies. They are not true in the general case, and have never even been proven in anecdotal cases.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, if there are such negative implications,” one unnamed woman says. This shows that she was prompted before the clip that was shown, and given the false information mentioned above.

These sorts of videos are nothing but misleading agit-prop.

Now, the TKAG proposes to spend a fortune on obstructionism and delay tactics in court. Judging by the veracity of the campaign so far, it will ultimately fail, but not before the window of opportunity may have closed. South Africa is far from the only country with abundant shale gas resources, and declining world gas prices may make it uncompetitive to produce here if it doesn’t come on stream as soon as possible.

The TKAG is trying to discourage foreign direct investors from doing all this work for us, stimulating the economy and creating thousands of jobs both directly connected with oil and gas, and indirectly by improving the productivity of industry in general. Instead, they want the government to turn to imports of offshore oil and gas, as if those are any less risky, more reliable, or cheaper. And we, the people, will be left with the bill and environmental costs of alternatives such as coal, nuclear and renewables.

Environmentalists would be more usefully employed in helping to craft suitable regulations that will mitigate even the small risks that shale gas extraction, like any other industry, poses to natural resources.

In the wake of last week’s announcement that shale gas exploration will definitely happen, the TKAG was not the only one to respond. The minister of water and environmental affairs, Edna Molewa, gazetted a notice that exploration or production of on-shore unconventional gas, and hydraulic fracturing itself, be declared a “controlled activity” under the National Water Act.

This was widely expected in industry circles, and gives the government the tools it needs to ensure that water use and wastewater disposal are adequately regulated to prevent environmental harm and ensure that it does not become a burden on South Africa’s national water supply.

That is what responsible environmental management looks like. We all share a certain cynicism about government’s ability to enforce regulations, of course, and that would be fully justified by its track record. However, the solution is not a ban on industry, but a vigilant media and civil society sector that can help reduce corruption, improve skills and raise regulatory capacity.

Rob Davies isn’t always right, but he is right on shale gas. And the TKAG is wrong. It once sparked a useful debate, perhaps, but if it now further delays the exploration for shale gas in the Karoo, it will be doing all South Africans, rich and poor, a great disservice. DM

Clarification: Jonathan Deal brought to my attention two alleged factual errors in this column. First, he claims Jeremy
Westgarth-Taylor is not an executive committee member of the TKAG. Second, he claims the TKAG had no involvement with the Green Renaissance video montage to which I linked. In both cases, he appears to be technically correct.

Westgarth-Taylor certainly was a TKAG committee member when he debated me at a TKAG fundraising event, during which he used the picture I referred to (and falsely accused me of being paid by either Shell or the ANC). The event was hosted by WESSA, who similarly recall him representing the TKAG. However, Westgarth-Taylor today told me he does not know whether he is still a committee member. He claims to have asked to "take time off" for personal reasons. Deal says he is not a member, which, by virtue of Deal's position as CEO, and the TKAG's constitution, makes it official.

The video contains a link to TKAG, raises funds for the TKAG, and in its description said: "representatives from Green Renaissance and the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) went to find out what people thought about hydraulic fracturing". However, this statement is not true, according to Michael Raimondo of Green Renaissance, its producers. He confirms Deal's claim that the TKAG had nothing to do with the video, despite its misleading description. He apologises on behalf of an unnamed Rhodes intern for the error, which has persisted online for more than two years. For my part, I apologise for taking the film's description at face value.

PS: On the other hand, this claims the TKAG certainly was involved in the making of the video...

  • 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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