Are the pro-frackers in SA ready to roll the dice?

Here is the response from David Johnson to ‘@davidjohnson gets his answer’ and my response to that. A positive response from David, to a public debate is awaited.

A response to Jonathan Deal

December 27, 2013

In my article “We can’t treasure only the Karoo” I questioned the approach of the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG). You can read my original article, followed by a response from TKAG chairman Jonathan Deal, by clicking here. What follows is my reply to Jonathan.

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.


1.    National Development Plan 2030, National Planning Commission, November 2011
2.    Statistical release P0301.4, Census 2011, Statistics South Africa, October 2012
3.    Statistical release P0302, Mid-year population estimates 2013, Statistics South Africa, May 2013

Perhaps it’s time to roll the dice?

Picture the South African landscape, if you will, as a living tapestry of environment and humanity. Poised above the landscape is a giant clock symbolising the confluence of climate change, unemployment, hunger, water, food, and other critical resource shortages, and the increasing needs of a growing world population.

Now juxtapose the landscape with a craps table. Poised above the table are the words: development=prosperity, and sustainability=survival. Just as in the game, on this real-life craps table there is a line. Staying behind the line may deny present generations the prosperity that they believe can be theirs. Passing the line may irrevocably destroy the prosperity of future generations.
Standing on the left and right of the table respectively are the environmentalists and the global developers. The environmentalists must admit that they are in the game as consumers of energy and users of technology – but they seek to reduce and limit that consumption and use, to preserve the system (Gaia) on which future life depends.

The developers claim a loftier cause – it is because of them that the world has an economy, energy, and food, transport, clothes and medicines – they have a connection with the people of the planet – they will never place the planet before its people. Their technology is the only path of survival for the world, their fossil fuels the lifeblood of the planet, and their determination to ramp up the production of fossil fuels to increase consumption simply a necessary and humane response to a rapacious world.

Given the chasm between the positions of environmentalists and the developers, the only thing to which any certainty can be attached is that the future will reveal whether onshore shale gas is the miracle answer to jobs, energy, prosperity and carbon emissions that it is claimed to be, or if, as prophesied by the environmentalists, it turns out to be an additional, unnecessary and risky fossil fuel that will place its extractors and consumers in a worse place than they were before its advent.
So often, in large development projects (and on a global basis, fracking may turn out to be the largest) the developers make many claims and promises. Often too, those who support the developers may not have to live with, or even acknowledge the consequences of the development – they may have the luxury of watching the tableau unfolding from a safe distance. In the hurly-burly world of international finance, faster transaction times, 24-hour global media, and an always-new war, famine, flood, fortune or other global news event, the promises of the developers and their supporters are quickly forgotten.
Nobody calls them to public account saying perhaps; “you promised 300 000 permanent jobs, you promised no pollution, you promised 3.5% growth, you promised that shale gas would make our air cleaner, you promised that fracking carried no health risk, that you would leave the Karoo better than you found it, that there would be more water for communities to use after fracking than there was before.”


The environmentalists are prepared to be somebody. Based on what has transpired, and is unfolding where fracking is happening, based on the actual results of extractive operations – in this country – and others, managed by the same companies who seek to mine shale gas in South Africa, based on the actual documented status quo of our Department of Minerals and its lack of control over the mining sector when viewed with its refusal to enforce the environmental laws and based, inter alia, on the slipshod investigation that has informed the Cabinet’s decision on shale gas mining, the environmentalists state:

    1. While the US EPA has still to complete it’s own congressionally mandated investigation into fracking;
    1. While bans, moratoria and restrictions on fracking, or parts of the process continue to exist and increase in more than 210 locations around the world;
    1. While scientists cannot agree on the economics, health and pollution impacts of shale gas mining;
    1. In the absence of an open, agreed, inclusive strategic environmental assessment of the real contribution to be expected from the exploitation of South African shale gas for the South African economy, under South African conditions;
    1. In the face of determined and self-serving marketing of shale gas by those with a great deal of money on the line; and
    1. Within the context of the climate change, population and resource debates, we state categorically that shale gas can be sourced off-shore, at a comparative price to that from under South Africa, without the environmental risk presented onshore, and without the potential to displace presently sustainable jobs in tourism and agriculture as well as the urban jobs supported by those industries. We claim too, that the gas will come with a huge gas-related infrastructure bill for the SA taxpayer to absorb, plus significant secondary costs to the fiscus (SA taxpayer) at municipal, regional and national level. We claim that the South African public – those not on the receiving end of handsome profits and undisclosed ‘loyalty rewards’ – will rue the day that shale gas mining was let loose on their environment – that is if they remember what was promised and compare it with what happens.

It is nonsensical to point to existing and historical environmental devastation here – and abroad – and use that as a reason to introduce a new type of damage – to claim that because we have damaged so much of our country, we may as well damage all of it, to accuse those who are awake to the consequences, of being self-serving Nimbys.

Prosperity today is worth nothing if it robs future generations of their right to also enjoy sustainable prosperity.

Call us obtuse, call us dishonest, and deride us for being emotional, and then roll the dice if you will publicly accept the consequences.

2 responses

  1. Jonathan has described the scene at a hypothetical casino, with environmentalist and developer players gambling on our planet’s future. There is one gamble which TKAG could help remove from this debate. If this exchange starts that process, it could be a very good thing indeed.

    Jonathan referred to developers who “claim a loftier cause”. But when a company suggests it is part of some noble project, surely only the most naïve of people would think the claim anything but a marketing ploy. The game played by the oil and gas sector is financial; they seek loftier profits, not loftier causes. The rival players are other oil and gas companies, their gambles are where to invest to generate the greatest returns. We all know this. To the extent environmentalists feature in this imaginary game they are not competitors, but potential impediments to them.

    The game of environmentalists, on the other hand, is an entirely different one. They seek to limit or prevent environmental harm, but they do not necessarily agree on how to do so. Many environmentalists are horrified by nuclear power, yet well respected environmental writers and activists like George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Stephen Tindale support it. On both the nuclear and fracking questions the environmental movement does not possess a unified voice, there are rival players. No environmental interest group can honestly claim to represent “environmentalists” as a whole, on these topics.

    Anti-fracking lobby groups, like TKAG, are therefore gambling that their view is the right one and that meeting our energy needs with shale gas would cause greater environmental harm than alternative methods. They are gambling because they lack a scientific analysis supporting their case.

    Jonathan refers to the “absence of an open, agreed, inclusive strategic environmental assessment of the real contribution to be expected from the exploitation of South African shale gas for the South African economy, under South African conditions”. I doubt he would trust an assessment prepared by the government or industry, with good reason, so why doesn’t TKAG commission one?

    If a diverse panel, not weighted in favour of any particular interest group, agreed terms of reference for experts to undertake a scientific study of our energy options, their full array of lifetime impacts (at home and abroad) and conclude with a hierarchy of the least environmentally damaging actions, there would be the foundation of a far more powerful and rational environmental argument. Maybe the report would support a total ban on fracking, maybe not, we would have to wait to read it.

    If this report supported TKAG’s view their case would be strengthened, they would be gambling no longer and many of my criticisms of TKAG’s approach would be wrong. Alternatively, if the report found different conclusions, TKAG would either have to change its focus or admit to having only localised concerns which did not benefit environmentalism on a greater scale.

    Commissioning such a project would be time consuming and expensive but would provide a far more persuasive environmental case than is possible at present. If it leads to a stronger environmental argument it doesn’t matter if either my or Jonathan’s views are wrong, the prize of better serving the environment would surely be worth any personal embarrassment. Why gamble on the correct environmental approach? So, Jonathan, I’ll throw the dice if you will. How about we try it?

  2. Pingback: SA Shale Gas – a gamble on a house of cards « Jonathan deal

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