This column appeared in Business Day Live. Neither Business Day nor Mr. Simon Lincoln Reader have responded to a number of emails requesting a right of reply. Here is the column and my response.
Fracking: look past the alleged bad to the potential good
It has been reported that Jonathan Deal, chairman of the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG), a lobby group opposed to the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Karoo, wants to meet you. Deal is a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize: he recently returned from the US where he collected a cash prize of $150,000, met President Barack Obama and visited various states where fracking is flourishing.
Mr President, you are a proponent of robust debate; it is something you perpetually encourage in the face of critical issues. Democracy, for the time being, ensures that debate thrives, and thus the aforementioned meeting would — and should — be supported.
It is reasonable to assume that the basis of Deal’s argument will involve his experiences, and possibly those of environmental lawyers attached to the TKAG. Because forewarned is forearmed, I wish to present my own concerns related to these experiences.
History and myth
Environmentalists and associated parties, from the US lobby that successfully facilitated the ban of the insecticide DDT in the 1970s (resulting in arguably the greatest genocide of Africans during the 20th century) to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have repeatedly proved themselves immaterial adversaries of rational debate.
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival in the Western Cape last weekend, Deal participated in a debate about fracking and allegedly acted aggressively towards at least one audience member after the discussion as he tried to interrogate that person’s views, which contradicted his own.
I have followed the Intelligence Squared series of debates in London and the US for nearly five years, yet I cannot recall a single incident where a participant, however enraged by the content, confronted an audience member in an unbecoming manner.
One of the most competent ministers in your Cabinet, Dipuo Peters, has often said, on record, that should shale gas deposits be discovered in South Africa, these be exploited. In the event you quote this during the meeting, I can only hope you are not subjected to any such hostility.
Fracking, while undisputedly successful in North America, parts of Europe and Australia, has been sabotaged by subversive celebrity elements that shun science in favour of documentaries such as the Oscar-nominated Gasland — written and directed by environmental activist Josh Fox — as evidence to support myriad flimsy claims, many of which have been obliterated.
Mr President, in parts of that documentary one can virtually see Fox’s nose growing as he narrates. The same applies to a recent film called Promised Land, starring Hollywood’s finest, and a group of celebrities who have joined another lobby entitled Artists Against Fracking. These scare-tactic movements are vehemently anti-development and risk averse, subscribing to the theory that progress is defined by a group of hippy guitarists surrounding a tree.
Two weeks ago, credible reports showed that the unemployment level in South Africa was venturing dangerously north of 25%. Last week, Eskom came within 0.06% of its demand margin. Petrol is nearing luxury status — food even more so — and the unions seem intent on enforcing hourly effects on the rand similar to those of PW Botha’s Rubicon speech. The National Development Plan is subjected to derogatory impulses from public officials who clearly have not read even the summary. A World Economic Forum report released this year ranks the quality of our education fourth from last in the world — in maths and science, we beat only Yemen.
This scenario, Mr President, is not a media-led stitch-up based on racist stereotypes (you told Peter Hain as much). It is reality, as evident among the shanties of dusty Karoo towns as it is on the outskirts of Johannesburg, forged by pressure that can only be alleviated by the prospect of development.
Mr President, it is estimated that the Karoo is host to the fourth-largest deposit of shale gas in the world. The shale gas is located as deep as 4km below the surface, roughly 3.5km beyond the location of the water aquifers — the contamination of which form the lion’s share of the environmental lobby’s concerns (it has also mentioned local infrastructure and agriculture as potential “victims” of fracking).
Only intensive environmental impact studies, in particular those that relate to groundwater reservoir studies and their respective geological gradients, will indicate the threats, if any — but if there are indeed threats, it is likely that rampantly advancing technology will mitigate these. The Karoo is a landscape of symbolism, but the Galapagos Islands it is not. Yet to emphasise its agenda, the environmental lobby has presented premature and reactive propaganda that undermines due processes against the spirit of our environmental legislation.
Faced with the deeply offensive C-word, nothing else, including the environment, matters. Blaming the media or opposition for the public obsession with corruption is to conveniently ignore the ruling party’s failure to suspend the likes of John Block, confront claims against Dina Pule or even acknowledge that this flawed approach was the rationale behind the foundation of the party’s integrity committee in Mangaung last year.
Mr President, if the public cannot trust the justice minister (for some, a recent revelation), then they will not trust the government’s involvement in this potential gas industry beyond authorisations, regulations and penalties. But were the government to apply the same responsible, effective and transparent approach that it has to the renewable energy programme, it would be able to alter existing perceptions.
In conclusion, Mr President, I wish you luck for the meeting. Humbly I would ask that when you are presented with the alleged bad, you dispel the discredited myths and you don’t forget the potential good.
Yours sincerely, Simon Lincoln Reader
RESPONSE BY JONATHAN DEAL
Dear Mr. Reader,
Your letter to President Zuma is peppered with a few assumptions, one or two untruths and a bit of hearsay.
The opening paragraph refers to various states where fracking (that ‘c’ word again) is flourishing. Flourishing, you may agree, is a term that could perhaps be more aptly applied to something like a vegetable garden, where it can flourish, year after year, without damaging the environment – if you get my point. My actual experience in Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and California did not bring the word ‘flourishing’ to mind.
I am intrigued by your statement to President Zuma that he is a proponent of a robust debate. On the face of it because you realize that there is a robust debate – the point being firstly, that if TKAG had not stood up in 2011, there would be no debate – Shell et al would already be drilling, and secondly, although I may have missed it, I haven’t heard one single opinion from President Zuma on shale gas mining. The President way well, in technical terms be referred to as a proponent by default, but in all other ways I have found him to be remarkably absent from this issue.
Your first assumption about what would be discussed is only partly true – about 30%. Yes I would most definitely share my actual experiences in the US with President Zuma. These, in my opinion, would be more relevant than the recent statements of Minister Peters, who according to media accounts couldn’t remember what towns she visited – other than to say one of the towns in Pennsylvania was called Marcellus. There are other aspects that would be shared with the President, which I don’t intend to canvass in public before meeting him.
Speaking of that, I wonder if you are perhaps possessed of some inside knowledge in relation to the President’s diary? In more than three weeks, I have re-sent my original request three times to various email addresses as reflected on the official SA Government web site, and telephoned on a number of occasions. Most recently, yesterday May 30th, all three numbers rang until they were automatically cut off by the system.
Your comments on the Franschhoek Literary Festival, constitute hearsay, and contradict the views of people that were actually there for the event.
I read in your assertions about celebrities and Gasland, a yawning chasm of misinformation. There is ample, peer-reviewed data in the United States and elsewhere. California is presently considering ten bills which all propose some form of sanction or restriction on fracking. I wonder if you have seen the pro-fracking films produced by the oil and gas industry?
Mr. Reader, you have been accurate insofar as your figures on unemployment and petrol are concerned, and I concur with you that this can only be alleviated by development. Sustainable development that is – sustainable agriculture, sustainable tourism and sustainable renewable energy.
I have to point out another assumption and that is that water contamination forms the ‘lion’s share of the environmental lobby’s concerns’ – this is simply not true. In venturing into the province of environmental impact studies, you lay down some intriguing assertions – from an oblique reference to whether there may even be threats (to the environment) to a declaration that if these threats materialize they would be ‘mitigated by rampantly advancing technology.’ May I request that you write to me separately to inform me of how this ‘rampantly advancing technology’ will mitigate the threats posed by shale gas mining?
I must confess to being confused about the relationship between the Galapagos Islands and the Karoo, but do feel qualified to opine on the ‘spirit’ of our environmental legislation’. Would you agree that to invoke the spirit of our environmental legislation the country would require competent application and enforcement by a willing and qualified administration? Perhaps you feel that the record of the Department of Minerals and the Department of Water Affairs are an encouraging example of how to manage the mining industry and the pollution flowing therefrom? I wonder how you arrived at a point, where you define the government’s approach to renewable energy as effective? Just this week I was informed by an employee of a parastatal that a significant wind farm development – which progressed through all the bidding phases, scoping reports, EIA’s and the like, to be finally licensed and ready to go has failed because Eskom will not buy the power. Admittedly, I was not present to hear the original conversation, and so this is hearsay.
In closing, I request that you furnish me with, and look forward to receiving, a list of the discredited myths against which you caution President Zuma. In thanking you for elevating, into the national media, which I now do, my request to meet the President, I request that, as you appear to have his ear, perhaps you would intercede and smooth the way for me to meet Mr. Zuma?
Jonathan Deal, CEO – Treasure Karoo Action Group