Tag Archives: environment

Maverick on the campaign trail

Until Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle

By Richard ‘Hannibal Elector’ Poplak


In 2011, an Irish journalist based in Cape Town wrote a book about Julius Malema, called An Inconvenient Youth, and the New ANC. The author, Fiona Ford, titled her first chapter ‘The devil wears Breitling’. Ford writes that she was with Malema in Caracas, Venezuela, for the conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It’s Saturday, 24 April 2010. Back in South Africa, on Monday, 26 April, the ANC were planning to meet to decide on suitable “disciplinary measures to deal with the youth” Julius Malema.
Ford describes sitting with Malema in the Caracas hotel and his agitation about the hearings, but what stands out are his fashion comments delivered to Ford “with scorn, pity and dismay, all rolled into one”.
“The leather in your shoes is supposed to match the leather in your belt and your watch. So if you wear brown leather shoes,” he tells her, “you must wear a brown leather belt, and a brown leather watch.”
Three years later, Richard Poplak is on the 2014 electoral campaign of Julius Malema’s fledgling party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. And what pops up but fashion and the red beret, the “primary piece of ordinance” in the EFF’s “prêt-à-porter arsenal”. Poplak goes on to quote Walter Benjamin on the “intersection of politics and fashion” (don’t get nervous – this is the sort of erudite reference Daily Maverick readers expect) but the catching issue here is fashion: the production and marketing of something, reputedly “new”. Ford’s excellent book had only one glaring error: it wasn’t a ‘new’ ANC that Malema was fashioning, but his own political entity.
If after reading Ford, you sat up, replaced the screw top on the chardonnay or ordered a Coke with out the klippies, and reconsidered your blasé notions of South Africa’s loudest and most “inconvenient” youth; after reading Poplak, you will skip the chardonnay and Klippies, and go straight to the spook and diesel.
Poplak points out – correctly – that the Democratic Alliance candidates in the 2014 election were not “bloodthirsty enough. Not battle-hardened enough”. What turns Mmusi Maimane on is macroeconomics, which is just not going to cut it in the brick-flinging, Molotov cocktail arena of South African politics. As he says, “no matter how much bullshit they [the EFF] spew, those berets scream ‘revolution’. And revolution is, sadly, sexier than macroeconomics”.
The great joy of being on the campaign trail with Poplak though is not only the insights into Julius Malema but also the side characters. Take Kenny Kunene and his Patriotic Alliance Party. Poplak reminds us of the fact that Kunene “isn’t the biggest piece of shit in South Africa” and that his talk about “helping children as often as Michael Jackson did, which, I’ll admit, is always a cause for worry” are not really the issues. What is the issue is that “no one knows what he does” since he stopped his life of crime and “got into the Brave New South African economy of producing nothing”. (He “won tenders” apparently.)
His take on Mamphela Ramphele is summed up in the preamble to the chapter devoted to her: “Destiny’s Child: In which we consume lox and cream-cheese bagels with the Worst. Politician. Ever.” Say no more.
And if you thought President Jacob Zuma was all about the laugh (Heh, HEH, heh, heh), then Poplak’s take on him is chilling. Zuma “radiates no intelligence… he is not a man of purpose, but a man of power”, and that does not bode well for the country.
Poplak’s style and language is mesmerising; the sentences flow through inflamed urban streets, splash against discordant images, and swirl around people who we know through their public presence, but who he engulfs with wave after wave of detail. His chapter on Trevor Manuel is searing and wickedly funny, filled with the sort niggles, usually ignored, that legends always leave in their trail. Who would have thought our country’s economic destiny was forged “by way of grammar”?
Julius Malema recently addressed the Cape Town Press Club. The venue was Kelvin Grove – yes, I know, last bastion, white privilege, racist, anti-Semitic, etcetera – ¬and Malema read his audience perfectly. OK the literacy requirement was at the level of: “Here is Jacob. Here is Helen. Jacob and Helen go up the hill”, but still, he nailed it.
Malema in front of this audience became a praise poet for Helen Suzman, an admirer of Helen Zille (whom he never once referred to as ‘Madam’), and a damning critic of both President Jacob Zuma and and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he speared with the comment that “Cyril loves money more than people”, referring to the Lonmin mine workers killed at Marikana. He also said that as he helped put Zuma in power, he would help Zuma lose that power. They loved it.
Malema was and is the consummate politician. Poplak resorts to gamer jargon to capture Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. “In the grimy scrim of South African politics, the Angry Birds gamer is a proxy for [the EFF], who are merrily catapulting ‘enraged urban youth’ into a piggish ruling party’s teetering political home.”
But is not just the ANC’s political home that is under threat from the EFF. It is the nation’s political metropolis. At the EFF’s final election rally, Poplak is at his descriptive best as Malema makes his entrance: “Fighters in white golf shirts and men in ersatz military uniforms… 30 bikers on screaming hogs and sport bikes, red-lining their engines to a slaughtered-pig squeal of mechanical agony”. There’s more. It’s a great essay.
But, as he says, the policies Malema promises the crowd have never worked, and the EFF party apparatchiks will not make them work “because none of them have actually done anything”.
But that’s a trifling detail when Julius comes.

[This review first appeared in the Cape Times, 19 September, 2014]

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Renewable leadership: A partnership of passion for the environment

Climate change, global warming, fossil fuels peaking, world water wars and the host of other issues that confront us – not only globally , but right in our backyard – necessitate that we start doing things differently if we are to sustain our life on the planet. Two activists, Lewis Pugh and Jonathan Deal, are forging a new management dynamic: renewable leadership.

Toward the end of his autobiography Achieving the Impossible, lewis Pugh says: “There’s a perfect speed for hostile water, and you’ve got to find it.” He was describing the waters of the Magdalenefjord in Norway , where he had gone in preparation for his first swim within the Arctic Circle, which took place at Vergelegenhuken.

The temperature was below 4°C; and after the 21-minute swim, his core body temperature had dropped to 35°C — the point at which hypothermia sets in. Some years later, in 2007, Pugh would use this strategy when he actually swam in the Arctic Ocean — known as the Black ocean — a mass of water some four kilometres deep and with a surface temperature in summer of minus 1.7°C. Pretty hostile.

He swam one kilometre in this water, wearing only a speedo, goggles and a swimming cap. He did it in 18 minutes and 50 seconds. He wrote about that moment: “What I feel is not victory nor vindication, but the sense of having survived.”

Pugh is trained for survival; and that is not simply because he was a corporate lawyer at the shark-infested Bar of London. Of the 200 applicants who entered with him on the gruelling, drawn-out ordeal of training to become a member of the United Kingdom’s elite Special Air Service (SAS), only he and two others received the coveted beret. When he left the SAS, he admits he wept on the train ride back home.

Law did not appeal to Pugh, and soon he was hankering for something else. When his six-month contract with the law firm he had joined after leaving the military expired, he decided it was time to do something different. As he says: “You don’t see many statues of corporate lawyers.”

He had wanted to be a champion long-distance swimmer. But a chance meeting with Clare Kerr of the world wide Fund for nature put his swimming in perspective: he was swimming in places where he should not have been able to because of climate change. The world was warming up, and unless we changed our way of managing our resources and our lifestyles, we would not survive.

“I swam in the Arctic Ocean — not because I am brave or foolhardy or a show-off. I swam because I should not have been able to do so,” Pugh says. “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.”

He became an environmental activist.

When Pugh heard that oil and gas companies planned to use hydraulic fracturing (see box below) to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo, he made a quick decision: he would get involved. he could connect the dots between the environmental damage it would cause (mainly contamination of the water aquifers), the resultant social conflict and the impact on climate change (the pursuit of more fossil fuels).

Pugh is decisive — and believes it to be a crucial trait in leadership — but his years in the SAS have taught him that planning, preparation and alternative plans are as critical. So he immediately contacted Jonathan Deal.

Deal grew up in rural honeydew, “running in the bush, catching snakes and riding horses”. He now owns Gecko Rock Private Nature Reserve in the Karoo, a 4 000-hectare eco-destination that offers a range of activities that are environmentally friendly and educational. Deal says he bought the farm in 2000 when he decided the corporate world no longer interested him — he ran a physical risk management consultancy — but the natural world did.

He is the co-ordinator of the Treasure the Karoo action Group (TKaG) – the reason he was the first person Lewis called when the latter decided to get involved. Deal remembers that first conversation. When he answered the phone, this calm, authoritative voice said: “Hello, Jonathan. This is Lewis.”

His response was: “Lewis who?” and the answer made him take a breath: “Lewis Pugh,” said the voice. And, as Deal says, “That was that.”

Pugh offered to help in any way he could. “We agreed to meet in Noordhoek for a sandwich the following Sunday. It was quite an occasion for me,” says Deal. “I was amazed at how easy-going he was and I also thought he’d be a lot younger. We clicked immediately.”

That same day, Pugh, the strategist, started marshalling ‘the troops’. He called around and got the name of a public relations firm, HWB Communications, and set up a meeting for the next morning at 8:30 a.m.

One can tell much about the way people handle their first meeting: not only had Pugh and Deal just met, they were now in a business meeting with a group of strangers, and presenting a common face. Deal is reserved, soft-spoken — almost laconic — and observant. Pugh is a presence, immeasurably polite, attentive and forceful. Both have reservoirs of intelligence upon which to draw.

Within the first few minutes of introductions, Pugh had stated his needs, his objective and his commitment. He talks strategy in military terms: he began this first meeting by repeating some words of advice given him by his commander on his first assignment in Iraq – “when you get into an encounter, the way you use your first magazine will determine whether you live or die.”

While the table was digesting that, deal started to ask questions. This pattern is reflective of their leadership style. Pugh often gets to his feet and paces the room during meetings. It is not a sign of impatience: it is more like a way of exorcising the need to stop the talk and simply ‘do something’. But he is too clever and too well-trained to do that. Deal makes notes and asks who is going to do what. They prepare, and act.

Both admit they still know very little about each other’s private- and business lives, but share a passion to stop further environmental degradation of the planet. Deal says they work well together, simply because they each have “a single-minded determination to achieve the same goals.”

Pugh agrees: “We know little about each other, outside of the work we are doing to stop fracking in the Karoo. But we have had to collaborate to win.” Deal has immersed himself in the technicalities and science of hydraulic fracturing. Pugh works the big-picture strategy through the media, legal and environmental angles.

Deal makes himself available for interviews, fighting every daily skirmish on the ground. Pugh uses his global influence and connections to find out what is happening in Europe and the United States; Deal works with local advertising schools to get the youth involved. Pugh asks how we can win the battle for the hearts and minds of the South African people; Deal attends the hearings in the Karoo. Pugh evokes an African vision, a commitment to our Constitution; while Deal works to grow the circle of supporters.
Pugh once said that he “always believed that there is nothing more powerful than a made up mind.” But he equally believes there is nothing more fragile than a made up mind. By this he means that in order to survive, you need to have the courage to make a “radical tactical shift”. We have relied on — and believed in — fossil fuels for so long, we need to make that radical tactical shift if we are to start thinking seriously about renewable energy.

Their collaborative leadership commitment is backed by their wallets: both have put large amounts of money into the campaign, and even more time. The leadership position taken by Pugh and Deal was never questioned or even discussed between them. Deal puts the collaboration down to an “almost instinctive” feel. “I know when to defer to him and he knows when to defer to me. It never gets to the point where there is conflict,” he says. “There’s no game plan — it’s just a wonderful working relationship.”

Pugh agrees. He says the battle for a good, clean and fair environment is the next logical step of the civil rights movement. “We fought for liberty — and won; we fought for equality — and won. Now we need to fight for our survival as a species.”

It is this environmental commitment that unites them, this willingness to look beyond the immediate solution of relying on yet more fossil fuel. What they want to see is a sustainable future based on renewable energy supplies.

“There is a tremendous amount of mutual respect,” says Pugh, but adds that there is very little “waffle”. They are decisive and move quickly, and are willing to delegate so that others within the campaign are never left waiting to act.
Deal says they talk every day on the phone, and willingly admits that he relies much on their friendship. “We talk about our frustrations and moments of despair,” he says “It’s not a macho, tough-guy relationship.”

Pugh concurs: “I am there to support him when he is shattered, and he’s there for me. What is most significant about this collaborative leadership is that it is renewable. First, because they are able to work within their areas of expertise without friction; secondly, because they use their bond of friendship to offload outside the core business concerns; and thirdly, because they are willing to incorporate and include others to participate actively within the campaign.

They are, in short, the civil rights leaders of the 21st century.

Fracking what?

The oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, use a controversial modern drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), properly termed “high-volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing”. This process did not exist prior to a decade ago, having been developed by Halliburton after the year 2000. A drill is sunk through the water table and down into the shale rock and then horizontally into the shale (previous hydraulic fracturing relied only on vertical drilling). 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.

[This story first appeared in Leadership magazine in June 2011.]

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Singer/songwriter David Kramer, the troubadour of the Karoo, took his show “Kramer se Karoo” to the Jam Street Amphitheatre at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in March this year.  And he’s singing out against fracking.

Some years ago, David Kramer went walkabout in the Karoo listening to and learning from the music and the people who made it. Kramer’s music has always sung of people on the margins, physically and socially; of people who are like geologic seams within our country’s landscape—enduring, fragile and essential. From his travels and meetings with musicians who played the “ou liedjies van die Karoo” (old songs of the Karoo) emerged the brilliant Karoo Kitaar Blues. It showcased the slide guitarist Hannes Coetzee and many others, including Helena Nuwegeld.

The story of Helena Nuwegeld is the story of the Karoo. Kramer met Helena while exploring the rich vein of musical history that is as vital to these parts as water. She was a guitarist and singer and her songs were about her place in the land. She was murdered a few years ago. The man who killed her was down on his luck and had been offered a roof over his head on a farm near where Helena lived. Kramer says it’s a particular South African tragedy, shaped by the violence that has rung through our history, and which has made cries of the violated as common prayers for rain.

“This man [her murderer] couldn’t deal with her so-called disrespect,” says Kramer. The man said in court that she had not called him “sir”. Helena was 85-years-old at the time of her death. “More importantly,”says Kramer, “He couldn’t respect her. She’d had a tough life and she wasn’t about to play that subservient role. She was hard, like the land she lived in. And she was badly treated and was suspicious of other people’s motives. But, she had more than he had, and he couldn’t handle it.”

Helena had more, says Kramer, because “she was that kind of person”. She had her life—rough hewn and sparse as it was—and she had her family and her songs. The murderer did not respect that; he wanted part of it—and ended up shooting her. He was sentenced to life in jail.

This is the essential story of the Karoo. It has more than it will yield yet gives more than any one person can grasp. For the oil companies to come in and want a part of it, shows a similar disrespect and they will end up killing it. Kramer is almost speechless when he talks about the prospect of fracking in the Karoo.

“This is short-term. They [the oil companies] say they will replace what is damaged. But we’ve heard all that before and we’ve seen what’s happened in the Niger Delta. When there’s a disaster, you destroy the ecology for centuries. If we contaminate the water underground, we can’t flush it out because don’t have the water in the first place to do so.”

And he’s not speaking from a point of ignorance. He has read up on the issue, watched the documentary “Gaslands” and he is constantly asking questions. “Life is on this planet because of water. I don’t understand how—in an arid place like the Karoo—they want to use so much water to get gas,” he says, referring to the technology of hydraulic fracturing which entails pumping millions of litres of chemical-laden water into the shale rock to split it and release natural gas.

“Are we going to take that chance? Are we going to pump in millions of toxic chemicals in these underground areas, crank the rocks, leave it there and then think it doesn’t really do any damage because we can’t see it? And what then, when in a hundred years time it [the toxins] start to ooze out?”

Someone commented that if shell was a person and you looked at their criminal record, it would not be the kind of person you’d want in your neighbourhood. “It’s like saying, ‘Oh, that guy is fine—he’s a paedophile—but he gives the kids sweets and feeds them.’ It’s a kind of suspension of logic and rationality,” says Kramer

On his CD, “Huistoe”, there’s a song called “Dans mettie dood” (Dance with the dead) that describes the harsh, tenuous lifeline of the Karoo.

Ek staan heel maand en wag virrie reen se reuk/Want sonner water sallie veld’ie bloomie/Sonner blomme sallie geld’ie kommie/Sonner geld wil almal vir almal neuk

[I stand for months awaiting the smell of rain/’Cos without water, the flowers won’t bloom/Without flowers, the money won’t come/And without money, we’ll tear each other apart.]

If fracking goes ahead in the Karoo, the oil companies will be handing out their dance cards.

At the show, he introduced his song “Onnerwater”—a song about the ancient Karoo, and from his recent CD “Huistoe”—by telling people of the dangers of fracking. His is the essential story of the Karoo as much as the Karoo is an essential story in South Africa’s history. A couple of the band members wore T-shirts that read: “Stop fracking our Karoo!”

Postscript: Since this was written, the South African government has placed a moratorium on all shale gas prospecting that will utilise hydraulic fracturing technology.

Kramer’s new show featured his favourite songs of the Karoo, spanning some 30 years and he was joined by Hannes Coetzee and the Sonskyn Susters (the Sunshine Sisters) and local jig dancers (rieldansers).


Photo courtesy of Hans van der Veen.

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Drill, Baby, Drill!: The chant of the political naif

Recently, the righteous voices of reason stepped into the fray regarding the use of hydraulic fracturing technology in prospecting for shale gas in the Karoo, One of the voices is journalist Ivo Vegter, who assumed the role of Devil’s advocate. Such a role requires a modicum of intellectual rigour otherwise you end up playing God’s advocate, endorsing that which you supposedly set out to question. It’s an easy back slide and reveals a penchant for controversy over a desire for coherency.

Lewis Pugh, a critic of environmental degradation and a spokesman for Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), challenged Shell—and other gas and oil companies—about its plan to frack in the Karoo and in so doing made a speech that was widely reprinted and replayed on various digital channels. For some it was rousing. For others, it was “propaganda” and “alarming”. The latter determined that what Pugh was saying was that there would be war over water.

What he said was: “If we damage our limited water supply—and fracking will do just that—we will have conflict again here in South Africa. Look around the world. Wherever you damage the environment you have conflict.”

That should set off alarm bells. But by “alarming”, the righteous voices of reason make out that Pugh is shouting “fire” in a crowded auditorium. Yet, just a few days ago in Ficksburg, the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens group handed to the municipality of Ficksburg a list of demands that included “proper water supply, repairs to sewerage drains and waste removal”. Their environment had been damaged by untreated sewerage and uncollected waste. Their letter was ignored and so they marched in their thousands to make their voice heard. The tragic result was the shooting to death of Andries Tatana, a concerned citizen, a father and and a respected teacher, who wanted water and clean streets for his family.

That is the conflict of which Pugh warns. To think of conflict only in terms of war indicates an intellectual shallowness more common to tabloid headlines—”Vegan Vampire Eats Kirstenbosch Gardens!” or “Fracking Scandal Exposed!”—than a purported “closer inspection” would indicate.

The voices of reason fail to acknowledge the human rights dimension of this debate being more intent of disparaging—but not refuting—the arguments of those opposed to short-term corporate gains at the expense of the future. We are a member of the United Nations and uphold its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The World Health Organisation in its document “Water, health and human rights” states: “The content of the right to water may be generally defined as a right to access to water of sufficient cleanliness and in sufficient quantities to meet individual needs… While drinking and cooking water would be protected, water for food production would probably not be covered under the minimum needs in arid areas, as agriculture production requires such high amounts of water that individual household needs must first be ensured. The same goes for water for industrial use: although industry and electricity are important for ensuring an adequate standard of living, these uses must not infringe on the right to household water. For both agriculture and industrial uses, contamination of drinking water must be prevented.”

The proponents of fracking cannot in any way show that fracking will not contaminate the Karoo aquifers. What they do say, repeatedly, is that there is “no known link” between fracking and aquifer and groundwater pollution. And they cite only their own expert testimony.

The level of political naivety revealed in the statements of the voices of reason when commenting on Pugh’s speech recurs throughout their “close inspection” of the claims of Pugh and others opposed to fracking in the Karoo and elsewhere. Vegter wrote of Pugh’s speech: “Then he [Pugh] invoked the political tyrants being toppled in north Africa, and deftly juxtaposed ‘corporate tyranny’ as if it’s the same thing.”

That’s a bit embarrassing, really. Like when your partner’s just spent R850 at the hairdresser and you still have to ask: “Really? What’s the difference?” To think that so-called democratic countries such as the USA are not dictated to by the corporate tyranny of big business is like still believing Ralph Nader was a Satanist for challenging GM on its car safety.

For those who don’t remember, Nader took on the automotive giants with his book “Unsafe at any speed” (1965) and successfully sued GM and its posse of righteous voices of reason for the subsequent “dirty tricks” campaign they launched to smear his credibility. He got a payout and a public apology from the then CEO of GM.

That’s the interesting thing about comfort zones and voices of reason. Take cars: most of those reading this drive a car and some of you may smoke. Cigarette lighters have been a standard feature in cars since the 1920s but automobile manufacturers were only forced to make safety belts a standard feature in the late 1950s. More people were dying from the effects of cigarette smoking than were dying in car crashes. Doctors, dealing with the trauma of patients involved in car crashes, helped push through seat-belt legislation, despite the assurances of experts saying they were not necessary. Tobacco manufacturers hid behind a fortress of lawyers, corrupt politicians and compromised scientists for more than 40 years to hide that fact that nicotine is addictive and that smoking kills. They also denied the effects of secondary smoke.

The naivety continues. Vegter cited reams of outdated research regarding “signed statements from state officials representing Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Alabama, and Texas, responding to these allegations [water contamination]. As a result of our regulatory review and analysis, the GWPC concluded that state oil and gas regulations are adequately designed to directly protect water resources”.

This is so staggeringly naive it’s unbelievable. It is also shoddy research. These legislators were making a political argument, not a scientific one—in other words, they were covering their backs. The reason why the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is re-opening the debate on the use of hydraulic fracturing—hearings are being conducted as this is being written—is because whistle-blowers within EPA confirmed that political pressure had been brought to bear on the original reports. As Wes Wilson, one of the E.P.A. whistle-blowers, said in a recent interview about that report, five of the seven members of the study’s peer review panel were current or former employees of the oil and gas industry.

Numerous complainants petitioned the USA government to get the EPA to review the earlier decision on hydraulic fracking. One of them, from Neil Zusman, Ithaca, NY, is particularly poignant:

I have read widely on this topic and it is of personal interest to me. I am not a scientist. I observe the events along the historical timeline that includes civil rights, anti-war protest, and the environmental movement. I believe they are inextricably linked. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor and a proud American, yet I know the health and democratic dangers faced by a nation whose over arching motivation involves economic benefits especially in times of economic distress.

The EPA has failed to act on the evidence of public danger caused by toxic materials released into the water as a result of hydraulic fracturing. This failure first occurred in the 1990’s [sic] in Alabama, in a case brought by LEAF. Alabama was the only state to come under the regulations of the UIC program. Among the stakeholder case studies mentioned in the Appendices of the Draft Study, Alabama is notably absent. This concerns me.

The legacy that this study follows is onerous: The 11th Circuit Court originally scheduled oral arguments for the LEAF II case for the week of February 26, 2001. This schedule was changed and the oral arguments were conducted on March 12, 2001 in Atlanta. The National Energy Policy Development Group was a group, created by Executive Order on January 29, 2001, that was chaired by Vice President Richard Cheney.

While he was US vice president, Cheney backed a series of measures favouring his former employer, Halliburton, whose hydraulic fracturing technology generated $1.5-billion a year for the company, “about one-fifth of its energy-related revenue”. LA Times’ reporters Tom Hamburger and Alan Miller pointed out in 2004: “Halliburton and other oil and gas firms have been fighting efforts to regulate the procedure [fracking] under a statute that protects drinking water supplies. The 2001 national energy policy report, written under the direction of the vice president’s office (Cheney), cited the value of hydraulic fracturing but didn’t mention concerns raised by staff members at the Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, the administration has taken steps to keep the practice from being regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which Halliburton has said would hurt its business and add needless costs and bureaucratic delays.”

Neil Zusman goes on to say:

Americans were fortunate to have whistle blowers bring important national health issues to the press. This study you undertake, as other EPA studies in the past, have fallen short of protecting public health. In fact, Congress has recently found that the gas industry has failed to uphold its agreement not to use diesel in wells. Yet, little enforcement of EPA regulations has made Americans more vulnerable to the toxic practice of gas drilling. The States have not shown that they can adequately regulate gas drilling, especially in more populated areas. Federal Regulations are clearly needed. Time and time again, as noted by a Pew Research Group report, a wide variety of industries, in seat belts, lead paint, cigarettes and many others, have fought federal regulation only to have history prove that it never hurt their bottom line.

Water is at the heart of this debate—fracking requires large amounts of water—and the voices of reason latch on to it, as they should. Yet, again, the poor writing and shoddy research of the proponents of fracking reveal at best a lack of rigour and at worst obfuscation worthy of Cheney.

One of the objections raised against Pugh was that he quoted the amount of water required for fracking in litres. The figures were given—in litres—to reporters by Kim Bye Braun, media communications manager of Shell. Most of the studies on hydraulic fracturing emanate from the USA, which uses gallons (US). The conversion was to litres because SA doesn’t use the imperial measure. This is a red herring. But OK, let’s talk of 7 000 to144 000 cubic metres of water. Does it now sound like nothing?

But, let’s take these numbers that the voices of reason have supplied and unwind the spin therein (and here I am indebted to comment from a concerned reader). US reports frequently give the amount of water per well as between 1-million to 8-million gallons, approximately 4 000m³ to 30 000m³. Shell South Africa says roughly 7 000m³ to 144 000 m³.

(The figures given by the oil companies about the amount of water needed for fracking are, however, questionable. Professor Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University—that hotbed of socialist, bunny hugger thinkers—says each well will require on average 44 000 000 gallons of water. That’s 166 558m³ of water.)

Vegter says that the projected use at Medupi is 14-million m³, which is roughly 100 times as much as will be used in the Karoo. That’s true if you are talking about one well. Shell alone plans 24 wells in its exploration phase. Thus, that first fracking phase alone will use the equivalent of 25% of what Medupi will use annually.

If those 24 exploratory sites are developed into production sites, it is possible that there may be as many as eight wells on each site, each one requiring fracking at three to five year intervals. This alone would then begin to rival Medupi’s water usage. And if you factor in the possibility that each well can use up to 16 multiple horizontal fracture drills fanning out from the vertical shaft, the amount of water per well increases considerably.

Each of those sites can exploit possibly a maximum of 10km², probably less (In the US they talk about 80 acres—three sites per km²) . If only 10% of the 90 000 km² under consideration in the Shell application is exploited that means something like 9  000 sites, each using 144 000 m³, the amount of water required will be in the region of 1.296-million  m³—let’s say thousand million cubic metres. The Gariep Dam has a total storage capacity of approximately five thousand million cubic metres. You’re talking about perhaps 10% of the entire country’s water supply—that’s a lot whether measured in imperial or metric units.

Now, what happens when all this, chemically toxic filthy, water comes back up out of the ground. What do we do with it then? The voices of reason are as silent as lambs on this.

Vegter’s claim that Eskom’s Medupi at Lephalale uses vastly more water than fracking ever would is not simply disingenuous it is blatantly false. TKAG is arguing against using the scarce water resources (almost entirely aquifers) upon which the Karoo depends. The comparison is false and as such there is no dichotomy.

Voices of reason always throw up the phrase “false dichotomy” when labelling their objections to a particular point of view. They also begin sentences with the word “Indeed”—which is up there with profile writers who call their subject “insightful” and food writers who describe meals as “wholesome”.

The voices of reason also claim that “Shell has long since agreed to ensure it will not compete with local residents or farmers for water”. Shell may say this, but Shell has not answered the question of what water it will use. Nor has it answered the question of what it will do if its actions do contaminate the Karoo’s aquifers. You can’t flush contamination out of an aquifer without using more water—which the Karoo does not have in the first place.

Recently, 13 groups, including Lawyers for Human Rights, WWF South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, petitioned the government because the existing rules controlling mining gave “inadequate time to assess the environmental impacts of mines and imposed penalties that are so low as to be no disincentive whatsoever for mining companies”. They cited the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) which sets a maximum fine of only R500 000 compared with R5-million for similar offences in other environmental legislation.

The Shell EMP (produced by Golder Associates) states: “Shell commits to establishing mutually acceptable protocols for the independent monitoring of the water quality in existing water wells and surface water surrounding Shell’s activities. However, in the highly unlikely event of aquifer pollution, rehabilitation is covered by Shell’s insurance policies, specifically Third Party Liability policies, which includes consequential damage. The financial provision as proposed to PASA will cover any remedial exposure (if any).”

Most of us can’t get any joy out of our small insurance claims. Can you imagine the task of a small farmer in the Karoo trying to take on Shell’s insurance company about his borehole being contaminated?

The voices of reason refer to plans of trucking in sea water. By Shell’s own estimates, 300 trucks carrying 20 000 litres each will be needed to bring in that amount of sea water for each fracking site. They propose 24 sites. The dust and damage to the environment from that many vehicles is enormous. And, remember, they may use each site to perform up to 16 “frac stages”.

Expert testimony says that salt water used in hydraulic fracturing can lubricate the rock surrounding it, possibly leading to earthquakes. This may be happening in Arkansas, “which has experienced a sudden surge in seismic activity, including the biggest earthquake recorded by the state in more than three decades”. According to Fox News—not exactly a hotbed of socialist commentary—90% of the earthquakes recorded in the state since 2009 have occurred within six kilometers of salt water sites associated with fracking operations. Steve Horton, an earthquake specialist at the University of Memphis and hydrologic technician with the US Geological Survey, told Fox “the coincidence is too big to ignore”.

But why should we believe Shell? Or rather, how can we believe Shell—or any other company wanting to frack the Karoo. Shell has a track record of bribery and corruption, especially in Africa. “Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP,” says Pugh. “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?”

The worst that the voices of reason can come up with on TKAG is “being emotional”. The stiff-upper-lip-I-won’t-cry attitude is, however, no longer a required attitude as a reflection of honesty in the adult world.

Shell hired Golder Associates, a “global company providing consulting, design, and construction services in earth, environment, and energy” to produce a draft Environmental Management Plan (EMP). This document running to more than 250 pages was what farmers and people in the small towns of the Karoo were asked to comment on.

TKAG worked with Havemann Inc., to prepare a response, which was written by Dr Luke Havemann, Havemann Inc, Specialist Energy Attorneys, Cape Town; Prof Jan Glazewski, Professor in the Institute of Marine & Environmental Law, University of Cape Town; and Susie Brownlie, Environmental Consultant, de Villiers and Brownlie Associates. They headed up a team of 22 specialists and experts in preparing the study.

Dr Havemann holds a Masters Degree in Marine and Environmental Law from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in the Enviro-Legal Regulation of Oil and Gas from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Prof Glazewski holds a BComm LLB from the University of Cape Town, an LLM from the University of London, a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Cape Town as well as an LLD by published work from the University of Cape Town. Ms Brownlie holds a BSc Honours in Zoology from the University of Cape Town and a Master degree, with distinction, in Environmental Science from the University of Cape Town.

The voices of reason, not unexpectedly, dismiss the 104-page document. A shallow reading of most documents is often revealed in the responses to that document. First, they look to the Netherlands where fracking has been used for 40 years—citing the Netherlands as a “an extremely densely populated, environmentally conscious and highly regulated society”. What they fail to point out is testimony about the effects of fracking.

As one Dutch commentator said: “In the Netherlands they’ve been extracting gas, oil, and salt from subterranean layers for over 40 years. In the area, earthquakes have become common while ground levels are sinking. It is a folly to think you can extract anything from deeper levels without the upper levels—eventually—caving in. Even if those levels are deemed impermeable, they’ll fracture as they come down. The logical consequence is that mainly lighter constituents (water, gas, oil) will rise through those cracks. Go dig—the bill is due only in another 50-100 years.”

While it may be safe to collude with the proponents of hydraulic fracturing when you are sitting on the Cape coast; it is perhaps a bit more acceptable if you speak to the people who are directly affected before declaring them “safe”.

Let’s segue to another oil giant: BP, the company responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Yes, I know we are talking about shale gas but this is about big corporates and their willingness to cut corners. According to an interview with Jeanne Pascal, who worked in the EPA for 26 years as an environmental lawyer, “BP’s flagship $1-billion Thunder Horse drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico nearly sank in 2005 after engineers installed ballast valves backward. And a federal lawsuit over safety concerns on another BP rig, Atlantis, was making its way through the courts even as the Deepwater Horizon exploded”.

Journalists investigating BP corroborated and expanded on Pascal’s concerns and found the the company emphasized a “culture of austerity in pursuit of corporate efficiency, lean budgets and shareholder profits”. They found that current and former BP workers and executives said the company “repeatedly cut corners, let alarm and safety systems languish and skipped essential maintenance that could have prevented a number of explosions and spills”. Apparently, internal BP documents support these claims.

Why should we trust Shell to act differently? Because, according to the righteous voices of reason, Shell et al, really care. To put it in Vegter’s words, people aligned with TKAG are the “ecomentalists, with their 4x4s and bicycles and hemp hand bags and enough free time to organise petitions, protests and PR campaigns, might not care”. (The “might” is rhetorical.)

Vegter misquotes the Havemann report. “Indeed, the Haveman [sic] report quite openly bemoans the ‘real paucity of information’ about environmental or health impacts.” The extract from which Vegter quotes is actually Havemann quoting from the Tyndall Report produced in the UK about hydraulic fracturing, and it was that report’s preamble to why there should be a moratorium on fracking—not enough is known about its deleterious effects.

If Vegter had gone a little further—or a little deeper—he would have also noted the Havemann document states—again quoting the Tyndall Report —‘[i]n itself, this lack of information can be seen as a finding, as along with the growing body of evidence for ground and surface water contamination from the US and the requirement for the application of the precautionary principle in the EU, shale gas extraction in the UK must surely be delayed until clear evidence of its safety can be presented.’ The Tyndall Report goes on to say that, with the considerable uncertainty surrounding the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction, ‘it seems sensible to wait for the results of the US EPA investigation to bring forward further information’

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.

One of the favourite arguments of the voices of reason rests on the assurances given by the drilling companies that the casement technology used in fracturing is safe. They cite a report prepared for the US Department of Energy which states: “Ground water is protected during the shale gas fracturing process by a combination of the casing and cement that is installed when the well is drilled and the thousands of feet of rock between the fracture zone and any fresh or treatable aquifers.”

The voices of reason lay this out as if this was a statement of fact when it is description of best practices. The document cited here also carries the disclaimer: “The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof.” This document was a position paper, which it clearly states: “This Shale Gas Primer was intended to be an accurate depiction of current factors and does not represent the view of any individual state. Knowledge about shale gas development will continue to evolve.”

TKAG and its allies are, however, representing the views of an “individual state”—the Karoo. This region is unique in many ways. Let’s take its geology, which begins with the ancient glacial Dwyka tillite and ends 48-million years later in the middle Beaufort time. The edges on the south—the Outeniqua mountains—and the north—the Swartberg—are hard, quartzitic sandstone of the Table Mountain Group. In between are the Precambrian and younger Jurassic formations, weathered and worn into vast flat plains. Aeons later, Gondwana started its dismemberment and triggered tectonic forces below the mantle of mountains to form the main fault-bounded basins, which today we call the Little Karoo.

The terminology of the geological landscape is as rich as the earth of which it speak: marine sediments, limestone, greywackes, turbidites, the thick conglomerates of the Kansa Group, all lithified and ancient and filled with stretched pebbles.

Through this runs the country’s most extensive fault system, beginning 100km west of Port Elizabeth and ending in Tulbagh. Not only is the fault system extensive, it is active—as Tulbagh experienced in 1969. And there’s no telling what impact fracking will have.

As Shell states in its 2010 Annual Report, “We [Shell] 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.

Vegter draws a contorted conclusion from the fact that TKAG, through the Havemann commissioned report, is calling for a stop on fracking, and quotes the report. “The underlying argument of this Critical Review is that an immediate halt should be imposed on Shell’s application for an exploration right as well as on any other application for any other form of permit, right or authorisation that, if successful, may bring the advent of fracking in South Africa a step closer to fruition.”

He then says: “It helps having your conclusions written before you draft the report itself.” Such a banal level of argument begs description. Not only is it illogical to use the executive summary of a 104-page document as evidence of bias, it is vaguely paranoid or sensationalist. To go on and label Havemann document as a sham reveals the shallowness of this argument. In the UK, the Tyndall Report also concluded:

See the evidence given by Prof Anderson where, for example, he stated as follows: “What we [the United Kingdom (“the UK”)] require, I think, initially would be to learn from history. It seems a reasonable approach to take, yet we have not done that. We have not looked in detail at what has happened in the US. What we know in the US is that some of the states there now have a moratorium on further development pending an inquiry – an independent scientific inquiry. That seems the reasonable route to go. It is hard I would suggest to argue different to that, in the absence of independent scientific inquiry, we will go ahead. It would seem a strange position to hold. I think that we should at least wait to hear back from the EPA in the US. As the previous witnesses [Nigel Smith (Geophysicist, British Geological Survey) and Professor Richard Selley (Petroleum Geologist, Imperial College Lond)] suggested, shale is not necessarily shale. They vary in their petrochemical properties very significantly. I think you would then have to say we needed one in the UK that looked at the types of shale we have here and the differences across the shale here, and try to draw lessons form the US study once that is published. All these are very good and sound reasons why a prudent nation would not rush ahead with it [it being fracking].” Significantly, the final question posed by the E&CCC was “[S]hould there be a moratorium on shale gas exploration in the UK until 2013, when the EPA is likely to have its report out?” In response to this question, Professor Anderson answered as follows: “Yes, for environmental reasons, and the moratorium should last for probably another few decades for the climate change best perspective.”

If there was any intelligence behind the voices of reason, the worst that could be said is that they are simply arrogant. Unfortunately, it seems they are simply simple. Put it down to naivety.

Vegter says that “hydraulic fracturing reduces the usual impact of drilling, since multiple horizontal shafts can be drilled from a single vertical well, dramatically reducing the footprint of drilling operations on the surface. By that standard, hydraulic fracturing is the most environmentally friendly means of drilling and is perfectly suited to a relatively unspoilt wilderness such as the Karoo”.

What this really means is that instead of pumping between 144 000m3—167 000m3 for each fracture (including the horizontal shaft), the oil companies will pump the same or slightly for each multiple horizontal shaft—what is known as a “frac stage”. This makes it “friendly”? So, from a vertical well—referred to as a “pad”—there could be as much as 16 frac stages. As Cornell University Professor Anthony Iggraffea says: “It’s not the number of pads that’s important, it’s the number of frac stages.” He points out that it’s “a chimera to say ‘we’re having fewer pads therefore we’re having less impact'”.

Hate to ask, again—but the voices of reason don’t tackle this—where is the water going to come from for this “environmentally friendly means of drilling” involving multiple frac stages? In addition, this ignores the question of trucking and pipelines, and attendant damage. It ignores the dust pollution, the carbon emissions, the construction of roads across pristine land and burial sites of our ancestors. But mainly, it ignores the issues of water. Of course, concern about burial sites,say the voices of reason, is such “charming clean, green waffle”.

Vegter concedes that it “is true that isolated incidents of pollution do occur. Some have been cited above. They do not, however, occur as a result of hydraulic fracturing, but in the normal course of drilling.”

He fails to explain the what the difference is between hydraulic fracturing and “the normal course of drilling” during which such “incidents of pollution occur”. The question that should be asked—and not dismissed with a meaningless phrase about the “normal course of drilling”—is to what standard should we hold any industry to acceptable risk for its operations (i.e. drilling). No one in their right mind—neither the righteous voices of reason or the “obstructionism of angry greens”—would demand and expect 100% accountability

Figures gathered in Pennsylvania over a three-year span, show that shale gas drilling averaged a 0.3% error factor. In 2010 there were 1227 violations—i.e. environmental violations—for 1386 new wells drilled in Pennsylvania alone. That’s a violation rate of 0.89%— almost one per well.

Take the airline business: it is held to a 99.9999% acceptable risk. This means that if one aeroplane in a million goes down—the shit hits the fan. If the airline industry were held to the same standards of acceptable risk as the gas and oil companies, then it would tolerate 870 plane crashes every day. (These figures are based on the average US flight information of 87 000 flights each day across the skies of America.)

The voices of reason then go on a more risible pursuit: “Why would it ‘destroy the environment’ to permit drilling for shale gas, when drilling for other purposes is celebrated?” Where does TKAG say it celebrates drilling for other purposes? The voices of reason seem a little unhinged. Vegter openly announces that what the TKAG and its supporters really want—in addition to possible access to vast amounts of moolah that they can extricate from the oil companies or even more vast splonges of wonga to be made from cashing in on renewable energy—is a shift from pursuing short-term fossil fuel to sustainable renewable energy.

Woah! How did the voices of reason manage to expose this scandalous plot? At one point, Pugh does say: “Now is the time for change. We cannot drill our way out of the energy crisis. The era of fossil fuels is over. We must invest in renewable energy.” ? Could that have been the clue? Perhaps, but it’s not a complex sentence structure to grasp.

Ironically, the righteous voices of reason have got it right. TKAG and its supporters do want sustainable renewable energy. There, it’s out. Confession. As has been pointed out before, 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”. And they want to be in the 70% market.

In 2005, Shell spent only 0.87% of its profit 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. It is an illusion—and a human rights travesty—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.

And no matter what the righteous voices of reason say about the oil companies providing jobs, it will be short term. And if the aquifers are contaminated, it will be a death sentence. Of course, the righteous voices of reason do bang on a bit about the “cleanliness” of natural gas. If you believe that, you probably also believe the car guard who says he’ll look after you car.

Cornell University—probably high on the list of those “not-to-be-trusted” institutions of learning as they do have such a plethora of social agitators on staff—will publish research in the next month, however, that concludes natural gas produced from hydraulic fracturing contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more. Cornell Professor Robert Howarth argues that “development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production”.

The voices of reason won’t like that. After all, they do not see those opposed to the short-term gains of hydraulic fracturing of the Karoo as real people concerned about the future of the earth. No, such people “aren’t harmless greenies, concerned only with pretty pictures of pristine landscapes and protecting endangered fluffy bunnies”. Instead, we are the sort of people who while they “can afford expensive fuel and other such self-indulgent eco-luxury, most of us cannot”.

Should you ever have the chance—and the iron constitution—to watch a stilted documentary called “The Big Picture”, do so. The film, courtesy of the US Department of Energy and made primarily for the US armed forces, records the detonation of “Shot Priscilla”, a 37 kiloton atomic bomb in the Nevada Desert in 1957 (Hiroshima was a 13 kiloton bomb). In it, you see a military chaplain calming the fears of two soldiers who were part of a contingent exposed to ground zero at a distance of 2 280m (2 500 yards).

“Actually,” says the chaplain, “there is no need to be worried, as the Army has taken all of the necessary precautions to see that we are perfectly safe here.” After witnessing the blast, the soldiers returned to Camp Desert Rock, “bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth”.

The US Department of Energy has a long history of complicity with big business. From 1951 to 1963, it colluded with the Atomic Energy Commission to pursue a “reckless programme of scientific experimentation” that saw the detonation of 126 atomic bombs in the 3.5-million km² Nevada Test Site. “Each of the pink clouds that drifted across the flat mesas and forbidden valleys of the atomic proving grounds contained levels of radiation comparable to the a count released after the explosion in 1986 of the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.”

The leaders of the US nuclear weapons industry waged a 30-year battle to cover up this contamination of North America. It was President Jimmy Carter who, in 1978, ordered that the Atomic Energy Commission make its operational records open to the public. It revealed an horrific account of malfeasance and immorality that would make even the most gung-ho corporate shill shudder.

The problem remains one of perception. Do you adopt the myopic it-is-what-it-is as expressed in the voices of reason or do you have a vision of the future—and by future, we mean 50, 100, 300 years from now? As Pugh says, “We cannot drill our way out of an energy crisis.”

It’s as if the voices of reason heard the parrots shrieking “Be here now, boys!” and took it literally, not comprehending the rich depth and context within which that phrase rests. What they miss is that “Be here now” implies an implicit acknowledgement that we must “be here now” in such a manner that we shall also “be here tomorrow”.

The issues around hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo may be local but, in environmental terms, the entire earth is our local. The voices of reason want to confine the debate to the car you and I drive (reliant on oil), the implied need for SA to be “energy independent” (vis a vis that natural gas is our saviour) and that shale gas will warm the homes of the poor. Good points. The real issues, which if dealt with appropriately, will resolve the concerns of the voices of reason are clear.

First, is water. To quote Pugh: “We can survive without gas; we cannot live without water.” The death of Andries Tatania is not an isolated incident of police violence—it is a glaring example of the inevitable conflict that results from the environmental degradation of a person’s environment.

Second, is the matter of human rights. As the environmentalist and writer Wendell Berry said: “the movement to preserve the environment will be seen to be, as I think it has to be, not a digression from the civil rights and peace movements, but the logical culmination of those movements…”

And finally, it is about developing our renewable energy resources. There is no reason to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo. It will not provide us with cheaper energy—energy prices are set by the energy companies, not by the people who use it. Look at Australia.

According to a report by the Australian Industry Group, Australian gas prices stayed relatively low because the industry was isolated from world gas markets. Once the infrastructure is in place to liquefy gas for export—which is what is planned for SA’s shale gas—domestic wholesale prices will converge with global prices. This has already happened in Western Australia and will happen across the continent by 2015. Prices go up.

As history has shown, the cost of all fossil fuels follows an upward trend, and the cost of solar power follows a downward trend. All fossil fuels are dead-end options, finite resources whose end will arrive very quickly.

Vegter describes hydraulic fracturing as “a perfectly ordinary industrial technique that has been in [sic] used safely and successfully around the world for many decades”. Golder Associates—the environmental organisation that prepared the EMP for Shell—says, however, that all hydraulic fracturing technology is “considered unconventional” and that it is an “innovative technology”. They also state in the EMP that because “hydraulic fracturing is a new technology in South Africa, there is little information available on its potential impacts locally”.

Ordinary? Safe? How shallow and shameful to punt this drivel.

Frederick Douglas said: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” The righteous voices of reason seem prepared to endure the demise of the planet.


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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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