@davidjohnson gets his answer on fracking

I had not planned to respond to this view, but a mail from Johnson asking what I thought of his piece required the courtesy of a reply.

Here is a view from @davidjohnsonsa – and my response.

We can’t treasure only the Karoo DAVID JOHNSON

December 7, 2013
First published on 7 December 2013 in By, the supplement of Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad.

Single issue conservation NGOs can wield great influence and gain much publicity for their causes. A responsibility to ensure they really are promoting the best deal for conservation should go with this, but a high profile does not ensure that’s always the case. The Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) may be a case in point.

South Africa’s National Development Plan identified a need to build around 30,000 megawatts of new electricity generation capacity by 2030. To visualise the infrastructure necessary to generate that much power, imagine fifteen Koeberg nuclear power stations.

This capacity must be built somewhere, whether it is generated by coal, renewables, gas or any other means. Pragmatic conservationists should therefore prepare the environmental case on how to satisfy that energy hunger in the least environmentally detrimental way, based on sound scientific evidence, not emotion. Calls by anti-fracking lobbyists, TKAG, to prevent fracking in the Karoo neither lessen electricity demand, nor adequately provide an alternative. TKAG’s “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) approach pushes impacts elsewhere and risks, perhaps, even greater environmental harm than that they seek to prevent.

Anyone thinking renewable energy is “clean energy” should visit Baotou in China, the epicentre of world rare earth element (REE) production. The REE industry has led to Baotou being blighted by radioactively contaminated soil and groundwater and the air is laced with solvent vapour. REEs are an essential component in wind turbine manufacture.

China produces over 90% of the world’s REEs and their lower level of environmental regulation keeps down costs. If anti-fracking groups exaggerate the theoretical risk of Karoo groundwater contamination, leading to increased wind energy generation rather than utilising our gas reserves, we export some of our environmental side effects and contaminate someone else’s groundwater.

Solar power also has environmental issues, one being the immense amount of land needed. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has reported on solar power plant land requirements in the USA. There are many variables in calculating averages and these figures were based on US solar plants so should be treated with caution, but their “total area capacity weighted average” shows that a solar power plant capable of generating 20% of South Africa’s anticipated pre-2030 power capacity shortfall would require over 200 km2 of land. That is a larger tract of land than the entire Camdeboo National Park in the Karoo. If you know of a piece of land with no biodiversity value that size please step forward. If solar is to satisfy the anticipated pre-2030 energy demand shortfall we need five of them.

Working at the coalface of conservation, in the Mpumalanga grasslands and wetlands, is Kerryn Morrison of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). Kerryn explained how the “grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the country and wetlands are the most critically endangered ecosystem we have.” Media coverage of the threats from coal mining in these habitats is minimal compared to that about fracking in the Karoo, but that doesn’t mean they have less value.

Around 75% of the grasslands of Mpumalanga are currently under mining application or being mined. In Mpumalanga’s Steenkampsberg many of the proposed mining operations hold coal reserves which would last merely a couple of years. Mining these areas means critically important habitat will be destroyed for a relatively small quantity of coal.

Kerryn says that a blanket ban on future coal mining is simply implausible, and of course she’s right, but it goes further than that. A ban on future coal mining would merely displace energy impacts elsewhere.

The EWT is part of local consortium of NGOs and government bodies, led by the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), seeking to establish the best way to formally protect areas with a high biodiversity and water resource value. Proclamation will largely secure such areas from unsustainable development and conserve our natural heritage. The mining industry has been included in discussions.

The approach of prioritising sensitive areas and not objecting to coal mining en masse is both pragmatic and likely to be more effective in the long run. A total ban on fracking in the Karoo is similarly unlikely. If TKAG used its considerable resources and profile to seek the formal protection of those areas of the Karoo with the highest biodiversity value, it could be doing the Karoo a far greater service.

Many of the exploration companies interested in the Steenkampsberg’s coal are small scale miners, invested in a single site. It would be reasonable to expect many of these companies to be wound up at the end of their mine’s short lifecycle. Acid mine drainage, the outflow of acidic water from disused coal mines, can often occur a decade after the mining ceases, years after many of the Steenkampsberg miners will have been liquidated. No one can force a company which no longer exists to rehabilitate.

Much of the Karoo anti-fracking commentary is simply along the lines of “Shell is evil”. Blaming large multinational corporations for the world’s ills is both fashionable and likely to grab tabloid attention. This ignores the obvious point that it’s better to have multinationals like Shell than companies which are unlikely to be around in a few years’ time which can’t be forced to rectify any pollution they cause.

All forms of generating power have negative environmental impacts. If fracking the least sensitive parts of the Karoo leads to less mining of the critically endangered Mpumalanga wetlands, fewer hundreds of square kilometres of land being plastered with solar panels and a lower demand for REEs meaning less groundwater pollution in someone else’s backyard, that is likely to be an environmental victory. We shouldn’t treasure only the Karoo.

To be certain of the least damaging means (or combination of means) of generating South Africa’s electricity requires a detailed scientific analysis of all energy options and their effects. It is not good enough to say “we need renewables, not gas”. Precisely where will these renewables be located and what are their impacts? We must make fair comparisons.

Creating public anxiety based on prejudices against fracking, along with encouraging assumptions that renewables have no negative implications, is a dangerous tactic which can lead to net global environmental harm. Preventing fracking in the Karoo does not lessen electricity demand. Worse, if it leads to more significant environmental impacts occurring elsewhere, anti-fracking lobbyists are nothing more than local champions and NIMBY activists. Environmental victories should only be won on scientific evidence and not on who shouts loudest.

What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a technique to extract shale gas deposited in rock deep underground. A high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into rock causing cracks, sand particles keep the cracks open and that allows the gas to flow to the surface. The water scarce Karoo is thought to have rich shale gas reserves.


1. National Development Plan 2030, National Planning Commission, November 2011.

2. Eskom power stations, Eskom, February 2013. Click here for the link.

3. Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues, United States Environmental Protection Agency, December 2012. Click here for the link.

4. Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages, The Guardian, 7 August 2012. Click here for the link.

5. After China’s Rare Earth Embargo, a New Calculus, New York Times, 29 October 2010. Click here for the link.

6. Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks, Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 28 January 2013. Click here for the link.

7. Land-Use Requirements for Solar Power Plants in the United States, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, June 2013. Click here for the link.

8. Camdeboo National Park, Park Management Plan For the period 2013 – 2023. Click here for the link.

Links active on 2 December 2013.


Mr. Johnson refers to ‘single-issue’ NGO’s and mentions TKAG as a case in point. Some might question his position by asking: “Would TKAG be more palatable were it a multi-issue NGO?” Does Johnson recognise that the plethora of mining and development issues currently on the global table are at once broad and specialized? Does he believe, for instance, that a ‘multi-issue’ organisation such as WWF has been effectively heard on fracking in SA?

The reference to 15 Koeberg’s is impressive. What may be less known is that SA’s electricity demand has not increased for five years. Moreover, the plaintive bleating about gas, of the (outgoing) Eskom chief, is belied by the fact that he has nothing to use to turn all of that gas into energy. Nor any plans as to neither how it will be distributed around SA or as to who will pay for that infrastructure. Gas is available right now on the international market and can be delivered to Eskom at between $12.50 and $17.50 per mcf. Perhaps we should question (rather than TKAG’s pragmatism) the daily contribution of Joe public to BHP Billiton, and the arrangement between SA and Zimbabwe that sees our hard-earned power leaving the country.

Pragmatic conservationists, especially in single issue NGO’s, must of necessity base their approach to an issue on a strategic assessment of facts surrounding a specific question. In SA we call this a STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENT ASSESSMENT (SEA) – and it does not imply a count of rabbits, birds and bees. Rather the ‘scientific evidence’ desired by Johnson should be launched within the context of an SEA, wherein “science” is an expansive term that references the full spectrum of scientific endeavors – basic science, applied science, engineering, technology, economics, social sciences, and statistics. The SEA should also be open, inclusive and widely published by the government.

It is telling for me, that nowhere in Johnson’s article is there any acknowledgement of the damage that has been done to public debate on shale gas mining in SA by the recalcitrant, secretive and dysfunctional conduct of the South African government. It may perhaps be easier to call environmentalists emotional and accuse them of being Nimbys. On the subject of Nimbys, a quick glance at the TCP, Exploration and Mining activity maps of South Africa to be found on the PASA website will show that gas prospecting is quickly spreading around the length and breadth of South Africa. If that is ‘in my backyard’ then I will accept the label of NIMBY – but only under that proviso.

One wonders, based on Johnson’s assertions, if we should suspend a move towards renewables because of the status quo in China? Also absent from his view is any mention of the debate (yes, science based) raging around the claim of just how much cleaner methane is than coal. But for the sake of this point, let’s accept that methane (and the fracking process) is as clean and green as the fracking proponents claim it is. And that fracking would be so successful that it replaced coal in SA over time. Apart from all the coal jobs to be lost, and wasted investment in power stations, the real point towards which I am moving is that the government (any government) will not leave that coal (money) in the ground. So it will be exported to a country that will burn coal. As the environment, within the context of climate change belongs to everyone on earth and pollution does not recognise sovereign boundaries, the argument for gas over coal is moot.

There are a number of large-scale solar installations under construction, one right next to the N1 near Touwsrivier in the Western Cape. They are modular, can be easily erected and although they can be large, they don’t have to be concentrated in only five places nationally. I have been completely off-the grid for years, and have reliable energy, with no emissions and no noise. Saving energy also beats creating new supply any day of the week, and we could do an enormous amount by reducing street lighting in cities. Rural places and the N1 are in darkness at night and people survive. Another way to save energy (and water) would be to consider just how much energy is used to bring water from long distances away, purify it (with more energy) and then use even more energy to send it (as clean drinking water) to fancy homes in lush suburbs to water big green lawns and road verges. A reckoning of what the green lawns cost SA in water and energy would be an eye-opener for those trumpeting about how we need energy.

In 2011, I offered (on radio in conversation with Bonang Mohale) to make 500 hectares of land on our property in the Karoo available to Shell on condition that they would (a) fill it with solar panels to feed into the grid) and (b) withdraw from fracking. There goes the ‘NIMBY’ label.

The distinction between EWT and TKAG is confusing. Firstly, that organisation is part of a formal alliance with TKAG against fracking and secondly, the issue (coal mining) that they are addressing has a long history in SA and around the world. Fracking, by contrast, is fraught with scientific debate, the subject of more than 200 bans, moratoria or restrictions, assailed by a growing international opposition, and only about 14 years old in terms of high-volume horizontal slick-water fracking. TKAG is also not quite three years old. Not really a fair, pragmatic or intelligent comparison.

Pragmatism, as a strategy could be effective if our government stepped up to the plate instead of permitting Minister Shabangu to break one promise after the other, and perpetuate an ineffective and arrogant approach to mining and the environment.

On AMD rehabilitation, the two new pumps installed to deal with AMD, have come at a cost of R500 million. The figures for running them monthly are in the order of more than R10 million per month ‘forever’ – according to the engineers.

The point about ‘having companies like Shell around’ to fix their problems is nonsensical. Not only because of the record that Shell has globally of polluting, denying such pollution, bribing and finally paying a ‘slap-on-the-wrist fine’ to avoid jail, but also because it is trite that Shell et al will be followed by other smaller companies – or is there some special arrangement that has reserved South African gas for the ‘big five’? So, the point is not ‘obvious’, nor sensible. And yes, Shell is evil.

Fracking, an environmental victory? For who? This generation? The ANC? The US? Shell? Investec? Come on Mr. Johnson. You are conspicuously silent too, when observing how loudly TKAG shouts (a line borrowed from Mr. Bonang Mohale, country chair of Shell SA) but failing to observe how loudly Shell has shouted behind closed doors, on TV, radio and print, and in the offices of all our poorly informed and biased municipal officials. It would appear, that in your book, this does not constitute Shell ‘shouting the loudest‘ but simply exercising their given right to engage with (and influence) the decision-makers in this inept administration.

I find your article on this wide-ranging and complex issue, insular, simplistic and partisan. In just one line, (the reference to PASA and the proposed fracking activity around South Africa), your view has been effectively confronted – this is not just about the Karoo – its about the whole of SA.

I am happy to debate you on fracking in any forum of your choice in this country and look forward to your reply.

Phone me if you wish 023-358-9903.   Jonathan Deal, CEO, Treasure Karoo Action Group

One response

  1. Thank you Jonathan. Whether or not we agree a debate on such important issues can only be helpful. My response to your reply follows or can be read here http://www.toomuchtoomany.co.za/blog/2013/12/27/a-response-to-jonathan-deal

    Energy demand
    Jonathan’s view that saving energy beats creating new supply, including reducing street lighting, is indisputable. Jonathan also correctly highlights that South Africa’s “electricity demand has not increased for five years”. But if this is meant to imply that the future holds anything but an increased demand for electricity, Jonathan is being, at best, misleading. Here are three reasons why.

    Firstly, South Africa’s economy is heavily dependent upon energy intensive industries like iron and steel production. Over the past five years, production in these industries has been suppressed due to the global financial crisis, leading to less electricity demand. There can be little doubt the global economic recovery, which is slowly gaining momentum, will once more fuel demand for raw materials and result in increased electricity consumption. Jonathan has, unfortunately, not uncovered a long term trend.

    Secondly, if South Africa’s current population growth rate holds for just ten years, today’s 53 million people will become 60,5 million by 2024. They will all need electricity.

    Thirdly, 22% of South African households remain reliant on paraffin, wood, coal or animal dung as their energy source for cooking and 11% use candles for lighting. As South Africa makes its way up the ladder of prosperity and the government acts on its aim to ensure at least 95% of South Africans enjoy access to electricity by 2030, the number of people using electricity will rise, probably very significantly.

    Whilst I agree with Jonathan that it would be wonderful if behavioural change could eliminate the need to generate additional energy, this is quite simply unrealistic. Suggesting electricity demand will do anything but climb is at best delusional and at worst dishonest.

    A genuine environmental argument
    A genuine environmental response requires a much more robust scientific foundation than arguments such as Jonathan’s trite “Shell is evil” mantra. Simplistic slogans might attract tabloid attention but are a gross simplification of the options we face and seek to pass culpability from us individuals, who collectively demand increased electricity generation, to one of many corporates extracting fuels because of the demand we have ourselves created.

    A scientific analysis of all electricity generation options, which would satisfy our reasonably anticipated increased electricity demand, is the only way to enable meaningful comparisons between the impacts of rival generation methods. This is the essential first step to conclude which option is the least environmentally damaging. There is currently no such scientific analysis and, without it, we can’t rationally conclude which is the least environmentally damaging method of meeting our electricity needs (be it by shale gas, renewables or any other method). TKAG are either guessing fracking is worse, or do not care about the impacts of the alternatives.

    Meaningless comparisons
    At one point Jonathan writes “although [solar installations] can be large, they don’t have to be concentrated in only five places nationally”. Well, of course not. If solar were to make a meaningful contribution to the nation’s energy needs we could, for instance, construct one massive solar plant plastering 1,000 km2 of the Karoo, have tens of thousands of tiny plants dotted around the whole country, or something in between. Jonathan’s offer of 500 hectares for a solar plant may be a generous offer of land from an individual, but a 500 hectare solar plant could produce nothing more than 0,5% of the estimated pre-2030 capacity shortfall, an almost irrelevant amount in national terms.

    If the Karoo’s vast shale gas reserves were only capable of generating a similar amount of electricity to Jonathan’s proposed solar plant, no one would be interested in extracting them. But they are not. Jonathan is comparing apples with orange groves.

    Distraction techniques
    Jonathan questions the contractual relationship between government and BHP Billiton, the multinational mining and petroleum company, and believes it is “telling” that nowhere in my article do I comment on the “conduct of the South African government”. The relationship between private companies and the government undoubtedly bears watching. But even if this arrangement was appalling for the taxpayer it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is also bad for the environment, or that other companies are any different. It also has no bearing on the scientific comparison of environmental impacts between alternative energy sources. Whatever source of energy is ultimately utilised, the dangers of private and public sector corruption are always present.

    The Nimby polemicist
    When Jonathan states “Gas is available right now on the international market and can be delivered to Eskom at between $12.50 and $17.50 per mcf” he inadvertently but unmistakably paints himself as a Nimby campaigner as I previously suggested. Does Jonathan believe the extraction of foreign gas has no environmental impacts? Has he factored in the environmental costs of transporting gas internationally rather than domestically? Are South Africa’s ports large enough to process this gas, or would further devastation of the areas around Richard’s Bay, Mossel Bay and Saldanha be required to enable shipment? Some of this foreign gas is produced by Shell. Would Jonathan still consider Shell “evil” if they merely imported foreign gas?

    I don’t doubt Jonathan cares deeply about the Karoo, but does he also care whether importing gas and therefore exporting our energy impacts could have a greater environmental impact than sourcing gas domestically? It appears not. I do.

    In conclusion
    I feel bound to re-state my position clearly, since Jonathan’s response almost completely ignored the central point of my original article.

    1. It is inescapable that we will require additional electricity generation capacity in the future, whether or not people become more responsible in their energy use (and I sincerely wish they would).

    2. I do not want to see the Karoo fracked. I do not want to see the Mpumalanga wetlands and grasslands destroyed for coal. But it hurts no less to think of the pollution around Baotou in China, where the polluted groundwater is slowly leaching towards the Yellow River. No true environmentalist would ignore the detrimental environmental impacts on other countries’ biodiversity of importing gas, any other fuel, or the manufacture of components for making energy infrastructure.

    3. We should be honest, scientific and detailed in our approach. Renewable energy and foreign sourced fuels have detrimental environmental impacts too. We shouldn’t pretend a 500 hectare solar plant is more than a drop in the ocean of our inescapable future energy needs.

    4. I want to know, and any true environmentalist should want to know, which is the least bad environmental option? We simply do not know the answer to this question without a proper scientific comparative analysis.

    The Karoo is privileged to have a vocal single-issue NGO that shouts more loudly than the voiceless Chinese communities suffering from REE production, the people of Mpumalanga who lack a single topic anti-coal NGO and the coastal communities who are yet to realise importing gas would likely threaten additional local habitat with port expansion. But from the perspective of the global environment, the TKAG’s unscientific, localised and exclusionary approach is dangerous. It should not be supported by anyone with a genuine concern for environmental conservation in both the Karoo and beyond it.

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