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A whale of a tale: The huge momentum shift in the story of two environmental campaigns against Shell — a decade apart

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Le Roux is a researcher based in Cape Town. She has a keen interest in the thoughtful protection of all that is fragile, important and irreplaceable. She writes about environmental and social issues and holds a Masters’ degree in Environmental Management.

Ten years ago when a handful of activists launched a campaign to stop the gas and oil giant fracking the Karoo, we were seen as a fringe group, ‘bunny-huggers’ and ‘Nimbies’. There were threats and personal verbal attacks, smear campaigns. This time around, it is different — the campaign to stop Shell from exploring off the Wild Coast has gathered huge momentum. So what’s different?

In 1975, the world’s first anti-whaling campaign was launched by Greenpeace in Vancouver, which later became the global “Save the Whales” movement. This culminated in the international bans secured on commercial whaling and was a historical collective check-in with our humanity. How could we have allowed something so blatantly barbaric as commercial whaling to continue for so long? How could we ever have thought that it was morally acceptable?

We are currently experiencing a similar global wave of recalibration of our moral compasses. We have seen this in a number of social movements that challenge the status quo and individuals like Greta Thunberg, addressing world leaders and reminding them of the simple, fundamental realities underlying their protracted negotiations.

When it comes to fossil fuels, the truths are simple: at a time when a concerted effort is required to phase out fossil fuels (including natural gas), nations across the world are allowing an increase in exploration for more oil and gas reserves, at more remote and extreme locations and at greater environmental risk.

I was at Kelvin Grove in March 2011 when Shell presented their environmental management plans to an angry and packed hall of interested and affected parties in Cape Town. It was a public meeting for their application to explore a combined area of over 90,000km² in the Karoo for shale gas through seismic surveys, drilling and the use of hydraulic fracturing. The oil company’s executives made lavish claims when confronted about the environmental risks, such as “we will leave the Karoo better than we found it”, that they want to use the Karoo project as an “ecological project for the world” to set an ecological precedent and “there has never been a single documented case of groundwater contamination as a result of fracking”.

Shell was one of three oil companies applying for exploration rights for shale gas at the time and it would have been the first time that, apart from shale gas exploration, high-volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing technology (fracking) would be used in South Africa. It would also have been the first time that such an extensive onshore oil and gas exploration exercise took place — at a much bigger scale compared to the 1960s and 1970s, when Soekor last explored South Africa’s interior for oil. There were (and still are) many unknowns and significant risks related to the Karoo project, in part due to the region’s unique geology and environment.

The anti-fracking campaign took place at a time when most of the social media platforms in use today were also available and a documentary on the risks and impacts associated with shale gas extraction from the United States was hot off the press. The shareholding in Shell through the Batho Batho Trust and Thebe Investments was also problematic 10 years ago, as it is today. One would think that the campaign would have been a slam dunk.

The next few months were a whirlwind of meetings, attorneys, PR professionals, more meetings, long hours on the road to the Karoo and back, phone calls, radio interviews, writing letters, television interviews, submissions, more phone calls, late nights and the constant state of burnout and rushes of adrenaline for many of us. The amount of effort and funds required to sustain such a campaign became nauseatingly evident. (These burdens were admittedly carried exponentially more by a few other individuals.)

Countless meetings with political parties followed, (with mostly disappointing responses), as well as with representatives, parliamentary committees, ministers, government officials, oil industry executives, business people and journalists.

Our message was simple: apply the precautionary principle in the absence of sufficient research and information on the (environmental and public health) risks of this novel activity in South Africa, conduct more research, and put a hold on any decisions in favour of exploration or extraction until it can be proven that this endeavour is safe and the right choice for South Africa.

There was widespread public support and protests and anti-fracking t-shirts and posters with middle finger Shell logos and artists, petitions, celebrities and musicians and front-page articles, fracked Karoo sheep and windmills with broken blades. Bumper stickers. Songs and billboards.

Soon afterwards, Shell released a commissioned economic report from Econometrix, which claimed that up to 700,000 jobs would be created if government allowed shale gas extraction to proceed, along with billions in revenue. Several economists expressed their concerns about the study, pointing out the economic multiplier effects in play in the calculations and the glaring assumptions on which these estimates were based, but these numbers stuck and were repeated by ministers, presidents, journalists and the average Joe until it was repeated so often and wide that it became a collective truth: the emperor’s new clothes are exquisite.

Then it became a debate.

For every successful event or newspaper article, court judgment, additional environmental regulation, or progress, there were counter-arguments, articles, tweets and rebuttals. Many were from influential public figures from industry, business, government, civil society, academia and the media that hounded the anti-fracking lobby.

We were branded “bunny-huggers”, “emotional”, “standing in the way of development, growth and jobs for the poor”, “selfish”, “rich landowners”, “anti-development”, “Nimby-ists” and a long string of slurs I would prefer not to repeat. There were threats and personal verbal attacks, smear campaigns and many sleepless nights as a result for some.

We were accused of “using technicalities as delay tactics” when we won court cases, which set aside environmental regulations developed and published by the then Department of Mineral Resources (mandated to promote oil and gas development), when only the Department of Environmental Affairs had the powers and mandate to develop environmental regulations under the National Environmental Management Act and the One Environmental System.

The anti-fracking fraternity has since collectively celebrated several significant achievements. Some of these moments include a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa, declaring advertisements from Shell untruthful and misleading, after which they were ordered to withdraw them, a moratorium on shale gas exploration using hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo, several governmental and scientific studies, lobbying for and securing a Strategic Environmental Assessment (in which we also participated as process custodians), and the recently published draft regulations for the protection of water resources in unconventional oil and gas drilling, to list a few.

Notwithstanding the obvious fact that there is still not a single drilling rig in the Karoo, the fight is not yet over.

Fast forward to 2021: I open my Instagram account and see a notice for a petition to protect the Wild Coast from seismic surveying as part of exploration activities by… none other than Shell. I felt a familiar itch. I observed as a spectator the following days’ activities, scrolling past posts and articles on the risks of seismic surveys and the potential impact on marine life, posters and t-shirts, attorneys offering their services in WhatsApp groups, a myriad of logos and poster designs shared on Instagram pages and Facebook groups.

From a distance, I watched this scurry of familiar activity — amazed at the scale of the snowballing campaign — but something seems different this time. It is as if the wind is blowing in a different direction.

The absence of large-scale harsh opposition so far (unlike the experience with the Karoo campaign) to these sentiments is perhaps what struck me the most. Notwithstanding environmental risks, seismic surveys have taken place for decades along our coastlines and are not new, unlike shale gas extraction. The offshore seismic survey by Shell is also not the only current application. The few opposing opinions that have surfaced so far were from some usual suspects, but the tone was much milder this time.

I was even more surprised to see some of the fiercest critics of the anti-fracking lobby voicing their concerns over the seismic surveying in the Wild Coast, going so far as to urge people to boycott Shell petrol garages, when some of these same people claimed that “we should be fracking the daylights out of the Karoo”, or hammered the anti-fracking lobby for “targeting innocent business owners” of Shell petrol garages when we called for boycotts in 2011.

Some listed the potential impact on whales, dolphins and smaller marine life, posted maps of the migration routes of these animals, but also had published the findings of the Econometrix study time and time again without questioning any of the contents, accuracy or motives of the report. These same people had failed to comprehend the scale and magnitude of the negative impacts that awaited South Africa if drilling was allowed to go ahead in the Karoo and the implications for climate change if we locked our economy into a greater dependence on fossil fuels.

Some financial institutions, as well as international and local, established organisations, prominent businesses and political parties that slammed the door in the face of anti-fracking groups and actively opposed us a decade ago, are now openly campaigning against Shell, calling them out, cutting ties with them or publicly criticising them.

And I have a serious bone to pick with some of them, not only for failing to use their platforms to bring about positive change then, but for using every ounce of their power to silence, oppose and trying to discredit those who were making many sacrifices to fight so hard for a just outcome.

So what changed in the 10 years between the campaigns of 2011 and 2021? I have asked myself this question many times in recent weeks. Was it the pandemic, people spending more time on social media, or that people developed a keener sense of appreciation for nature during lockdowns? Perhaps it had nothing to do with the pandemic, or perhaps my assertion is premature, as this campaign was only recently launched. The short answer is: everything and nothing.

It has been a long-standing and (to some) frustrating reality that campaigns centred on the conservation efforts of a specific animal species are more likely to garner public support than larger, more complex environmental campaigns. Notwithstanding this point, the cumulative and long-term concerns related to the exploration and development of petroleum along the Wild Coast are of course much wider than the concerns around marine mammals.

Another possible explanation was offered by an acquaintance in the marketing sector, who is convinced that a large factor for the success of the Wild Coast campaign so far is the reputational damage suffered by Shell in South Africa as a result of the anti-fracking campaigns. This, he argues, is perhaps especially interesting seeing that the Wild Coast project is one of their first major upstream ventures in South Africa since then.

Maybe it is due to changing tides and that public sentiment was finally in the favour of the new green movement? I remain cautiously optimistic.

We live in an age of greater social accountability and moral stock-taking. Just because we have been exploring our coasts for decades using seismic surveys, does not mean we don’t have to scrutinise or re-evaluate it. Our society is also enjoying the compound interest of the varied and continued actions of those who came before us — those who were bold enough to speak the truth in times of inconvenience and often great difficulty.

The timing also coincides with public hearings on the Gas Amendment Bill, aimed at promoting the growing gas industry and providing for new technologies (including onshore unconventional gas drilling and fracking) in the sector.  Concurrently, we witnessed world leaders conclude COP26. The big wheels of industry are still turning in the same direction as always and this will not change, unless they are forced to.

In terms of the bigger picture, we need a plan to divest from and phase out fossil fuels, including our reliance on coal. Part of this process must include a carbon audit of current quantified fossil fuel reserves in South Africa, and limitations on exploration for future reserves so as to avoid stranded assets and ensure that we remain aligned to our carbon budget.

At the same time, we need an economic plan for mass retraining of current workers in these fields and to pivot towards more closed-loop and sustainable industries. This is public knowledge, yet this does not appear to be a priority.

Since Shell has not yet appeared to put their well-oiled (pun intended) spin machine to work, things may well change in the coming months. I can only hope that this time, many of the individuals, organisations, media houses and journalists that caused great damage to the anti-fracking campaign the first time around, would have learned from their mistakes.

To the die-hard individuals and organisations that stuck with the Karoo campaign and made change possible — despite often having to swim against the currents — thank you. I realise I was merely one small crew member on this much bigger ship, steered by highly capable captains.

To the Wild Coast campaigners, I wish you luck. Brace yourselves, for the seas are about to get rough.

In Herman Melville’s classic novel of 1851, Moby-Dick, he writes “For there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

We need to guard against this madness. There is still a lot of beauty and magic left to save in this world. DM

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  • I think we aree moving (and possibly accelerating) towards a major tipping point. Not only have there been more and more sober articles published on the destructive impacts of fracking in particular, but this issue and the latest Shell marine seismic proposal may increasingly be seen as specific instances of the deeper and wider challenges associated with climate change, and the unscrupulous campaign of denial and evasion led by the fossil fuel industry and their government hacks.

    Everything is ‘entangled’ – we must not allow the arguments to be fractured and picked off one by one with fake ‘solutions’. In order to move forward (and maintain our sanity!) our awareness needs to be simultaneously global and local: clear knowledge and evidence on particular issues, while making and maintaining connections with like-minded groups and individuals around the world. We are not alone.

    For a bit of encouragement, read Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry for the Future’.

  • I am in total support of getting a through environmental evaluation prior to (but Shell has already started!) further seismic surveys by anyone.

    An area of major concern is the power and density of the “air guns”. I am certain that these being employed are “bigger and better” than previous models which formed the basis of previous environmental research. A new environmental survey must take this into account. The approval by Government should not be given on old information.

    The playing field has changed. Latest technologies and power of the equipment needs to be researched and must be “environmentally approved” prior to its use. Each new or enhanced seismic unit needs a green sticker of Government approval prior to it being put on the market. Very much like the way medicines are tested to ensure the are safe and identify any possible side effects.
    Possible consequences from the increase of size and frequency of underwater shock waves could result in harming aquatic animals and fish ear drums, upset their balance consigning them to a horrible death over time.

  • A really well written article.
    The change in attitude that you speak of, is the awareness of individuals, of what is taking place around them, but on a global scale. This is because citizens of the world are connected and technology has allowed this. Individuals can access information on anything, from anywhere, at anytime. This is the fundamental change that is taking place in the 21st Century. The same environmental disasters are happening in every country and activists and informed individuals are collectively changing the narrative. Any Corporation or Government that sticks to its autocratic and out of date behaviour, will have to start to rethink their future strategies to survive this change.
    We can all play our part, we can invest our money, via savings and pensions, in companies that are moving forward with more sustainable practices. Every Corporation and Government can do this, it just depends on whether they choose to or not.