Fracturing reality: the illusion of development


When environmentalist and endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh joined the dots between fracking for shale gas and contamination of the Karoo aquifer and linked that to environmental degradation and social conflict, some commentators dismissed it as baloney. Perhaps they need to focus on the real picture.

No one word describes Lewis Pugh, but single-minded crops up often. Not that his thinking is dogmatic or his vision blinkered—he’s bright and inspirational—but in so far as he’s focused on halting the destruction of the earth’s resources and providing hope for our children’s future. His decision to raise a voice against prospecting for shale gas in the Karoo comes as no surprise.

The giant oil companies—Royal Dutch Shell is one—use a controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking). A drill is sunk through the water table and down into the shale rock and then horizontally into the shale. Millions of litres of water mixed with a toxic compound of chemicals is forced down the hole and the pressure fractures the shale, releasing the trapped gas. More than 30% to 40% of the chemical-laden water mix remains below the surface. The rest is pumped out and has to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Fracking will deplete the scarce water resources of the Karoo and may lead to contamination of the groundwater table.

Pugh’s reasoning when he connects the dots between what’s proposed for the Karoo and what’s happening globally comes from first-hand experience. “I swam in the Arctic Ocean—not because I am brave or fool hardy or a show off. I swam because I should not have been able to do so. Global warming is a reality. The Arctic ice cap is melting. I swam in the glacial lakes of the Himalayas beneath Mount Everest, knowing that it should have been solid ice. I have seen the Maldives gradually being submerged by the rising waters of global warming.”

The oil companies want to frack for shale gas for a number of reasons. First, it’s profitable; second, the drilling technology, while relatively young, has proved effective (though not environmentally sound); and finally, especially in the case of Royal Dutch Shell, big oil does not believe in developing renewable energy resources. As the chairman Jorma Ollila stated, “we believe that [renewable energy sources] could provide no more than 30% of global energy by 2050”.

In 2005, Shell spent only 0.87% of its profit in 2005 on renewable energy, investing an average of $200-million—just 1.2% its 2005 total capital investment of $17.4-billion. Don’t expect Shell to allocate much of its earnings—a whopping $20.5-billion in 2010—towards renewable energy: more than 75% of capital investment will go to “upstream” projects—such as natural gas. “We think it makes a lot of sense to focus our innovation on natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel,” says Ollila.

There’s a fundamental short-sightedness in this focus. For starters, it is an illusion to believe we have another 40 years to plunder resources and damage the environment. Apart from the need to start immediately investing heavily in renewable energy, we need to protect what remains of the existing environment. The Karoo is a pristine and fragile ecosphere, dependent almost entirely on groundwater. Contaminate that water table—the Karoo’s life blood—and you will destroy the land and its people. That’s the reality.

Shell claims fracking will not contaminate the water table. Yet, the company could not explain why the corporations involved demanded that fracking be exempted—and got the exemption—from the regulations of the Federal US Safe Drinking Water Act, an Act aimed specifically at protecting groundwater?

When questioned about fracking technology, the oil companies point out that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that fracking does not pose a danger to the environment. However, the earlier decision of the EPA has been successfully challenged and is now under review by the US Science Advisory Board (SAB). All fracking activity in New York state and 160 other locations across the USA have been suspended pending the SAB report.

Shell claims that fracking is a tried and tested technology and is being used throughout the world. However, they cannot explain why the technological process has failed in the past and caused serious problems to the aquifers in areas where it has been employed. There have been more than 1 000 documented cases of groundwater contamination in the USA due to fracking. Shell’s answer that the other companies simply “made mistakes” implies that it won’t .

Yet, Shell’s 2010 Annual Report states: “We operate in environments where the most advanced technologies are needed. While these technologies are regarded as safe for the environment with today’s knowledge, there is always the possibility of unknown or unforeseeable environmental impacts.”

By its own admission Shell could face a situation while fracking where the groundwater is contaminated. Shell was asked if, in such an event, what it could do about it? As was pointed out, you can’t exactly flush contamination out of an aquifer.

Pugh says we can’t trust Shell. “Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP,” he says. “Shell, has a shocking record in Africa. It has spilt more than nine-million barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta—almost twice the amount of oil that BP spilt into the Gulf of Mexico. It was found guilty of bribing Nigerian officials—and to make the case go away in the USA—it paid an admission of guilt fine of $48-million. To top it all, Shell stands accused of being complicit in the execution of Nigeria’s leading environmental campaigner—Ken Saro-Wira and eight other activists. If Shell was innocent, why did it pay $15.5-million to the widows and children to settle the case out of court?”

Shell has avoided the questions, and continues to claim that fracking is “not known to harm” the environment. Disingenuous. But the issue is more than fracking. The issue, as Pugh says, is pursuing renewable, safe energy. “We can survive without gas—we can’t live without water.”

That’s why the reality is the pursuit of renewable energy and not the illusion of so-called “cleaner” fossil fuels. Pugh says it is a civil rights issue, and is prepared to take Shell all the way to the Constitutional Court. “Enshrined in our Constitution, is the right to a healthy environment and the right to water,” says Pugh. “The Constitution clearly states that we have ‘the right to have our environment protected for the benefit of our generation and for the benefit of future generations.'”

It will be a hard fought battle, but the reality is we can’t afford not to fight it.

Donald Paul is a freelance writer. Disclaimer: He is an admirer and friend of Lewis Pugh. [This story first appeared in City Press, Sunday, 10 April, 2011.]

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