Fracking confusion is the order of the day for David Johnson

The debate continues. David’s response today – with my answer.

Jonathan Deal does it again!

January 10, 2014

Jonathan, in his previous article, again completely ignored the case I have put forward since this debate began. Initially I thought there was little point in repeating my argument once more, until I read comments on social media sites. Some readers aligned to TKAG’s view complimented Jonathan on his “rebuttal”. But a rebuttal would require Jonathan to actually address the main pillar of my original article, not merely say why he doesn’t like fracking, which is all he does. I will therefore restate my position in writing, for the fourth and final time.

The most effective approach to limiting the negative environmental effects of energy development is based on a scientific analysis of all generation options and their effects. This offers us an objective basis to debate, on environmental grounds, which kinds of energy should be preferred overall or in a particular area.

TKAG are uninterested in discussing the environmental impacts of alternatives to shale gas. Their position seems to be that as long as the Karoo is saved it doesn’t matter how electricity is generated or which land is degraded elsewhere in the process. Jonathan never addresses this environmental concern in his replies.

Jonathan makes a number of points which relate to fracking in general, but are completely extraneous to the issue in the articles he purports to respond to. Jonathan’s tactic of responding with only superficially relevant arguments is so well developed he should seriously consider entering politics, he’d be good at it. Here’s my response in a nutshell:


One of Jonathan’s often used anti-fracking arguments has been the risk of corrupt practices in the shale gas industry.

Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index 2013” rates 177 countries and territories from least to most corrupt. South Africa, at position 72, is one place below Italy, a country where mafia involvement in renewable energy has been widely reported for many years.

Last year about a third of Sicily’s 30 wind farms, in addition to several solar power plants, were seized by Italian authorities. Politicians and businessmen, “tenderpreneurs” in South African terms, were among those arrested for renewable energy linked corruption. One reason the mafia focussed on the renewable energy sector was the sector’s generous subsidies. In fact, it is arguable that subsidised industries, like renewables, are particularly susceptible to corruption.

It is foolish, at least, to think renewable energy, or any industry, is exempt from the danger of corruption. More importantly, corruption is an entirely irrelevant consideration when establishing which form of energy would be the least environmentally harmful. Corruptly owned mafia wind farms are financially as filthy as coal, but the energy they produce is as environmentally clean as that of wind farms financed by legitimate means.

Government competence

Drawing attention to examples of ministerial error could become South Africa’s national sport. Of course Jonathan can point to examples related to fracking; we could all do the same in just about any field regulated or financed by government. Nevertheless, even the most inept Minister of Energy will not miraculously morph into a model of efficiency and saintly honesty if fracking disappeared from the equation, leaving a choice between renewables or coal. Does Jonathan honestly believe these same ministers speak learnedly and authoritatively on means of generating energy besides shale gas?

When Jonathan refers to incapable politicians, it reminds me of those same politicians kissing babies or handing out food parcels. It’s a direct appeal to our emotions, regardless of the topic at hand. The fact that incapable politicians hold ministerial positions is no more relevant to which form of energy is the least environmentally damaging than it is to whether permitting lion hunts aids or harms conservation or whether our fish stocks require more conservative commercial line fishing quota rights.


Perhaps the greatest environmental benefit of wind and solar energy is that, after the infrastructure has entered service, it can be pretty much left to do its thing. There is no need for a continuous supply of fossil fuels. There is no need for thousands of miners to dig up those fossil fuels either.

Jonathan has drawn attention to shale gas proponents’ dubious employment statistics. He has a point. But it is an irrelevant one. No matter what the truth of those statistics, it is a safe guess that during their operational phases, substantially more employees will be needed to generate the same quantity of power at a coal-fired power station than at a solar plant.

Saving jobs is not an argument for environmentalists to rely on in this debate. Coal could be one of the better choices, if your prime concern is maximising employment, but not if your prime concern is lowering carbon emissions.


Jonathan refers to the part TKAG funded review of Econometrix’s “Special Report on Economic Considerations Surrounding Potential Shale Gas Resources”. From what Jonathan has said, it appears that the review of the Econometrix report is the only study in which TKAG has financially invested.

Unsurprisingly, as the Econometrix’s name suggests, the initial report and TKAG’s response to it do not look at the environmental impacts of our energy choices, but at the economic case for fracking. The strength of the economic case for shale gas is immaterial to the relative environmental impacts of extracting that gas.

Moving forwards

Jonathan has suggested we hold a public debate. I will be back in Cape Town in late March and I am hopeful that a debate in person rather than online might mean I can focus the debate on what really matters – the environmental impacts of all our potential energy choices. Anyone concerned about the environment in the Karoo as well as other places needs a markedly more mature response than the narrow nimby anti-fracking case of TKAG.

So I will accept the invitation, and will let you know when debate practicalities are settled.


1.     “Sting operations reveal Mafia involvement in renewable energy” Washington Post, 23 January 23 2013.

2.    “Italy makes ‘Mafia’ arrests over Sicily wind farms” BBC Online, 15 February 2013.

3.    “Analysis – Is the Italian mafia turning green?” Wind Power Monthly, 17 April 2013.

4.    “German homes, offices searched in mafia wind farm probe” Reuters, 19 November 2013.

5.    “Corruption Hit as Italy Cleans Up Wind Sector” Renewable Energy World, 10 June 2013.

6.    Corruption Perceptions Index 2013, Transparency International.


I had hoped to continue dialogue with David, focused more on the issues than on the literary and tactical idiosyncrasies, of he and I. David’s opinion insofar as it pertains to me personally, and his advice on career choice, while perhaps being sincerely motivated by a desire to see me in politics are thus dismissed for the purposes of this discussion. I too, am becoming bored with re-stating the same points for the fourth time. Thus in the interests of being very clear, I discard the application of brevity in this reply.


Now. I cannot but agree wholeheartedly with David that: “The most effective approach to limiting the negative environmental effects of energy development is based on a scientific analysis of all generation options and their effects. This offers us an objective basis to debate, on environmental grounds, which kinds of energy should be preferred overall or in a particular area.” A scientific analysis of all generation options is expected, by TKAG, within the context of shale gas mining – in South Africa – to mean exactly that. It must include the full spectrum of scientific endeavours – basic science, applied science, engineering, technology, economics, social sciences, and statistics – as stated in my first article in response to David. For the life of me, I cannot understand firstly how David feels that I disagree with him on this point; and secondly how David can be unaware that the efforts employed by the South African Government to produce a scientific analysis that will stand up to world standards of scientific analysis can be viewed as anything but inadequate.

The fact remains: Science in countries where shale gas mining is fully developed is unsettled, with for example, the US EPA heading towards an investigation that will last six years before they are willing to commit to Congress on their definitive findings on the process of shale gas mining. On the basis of three years of debate in South Africa, at least half of which has been lost to inefficiency, and having regard for the fact that the Government Departments invited to be on the task team excluded key players, it is trite that a scientific analysis, cannot be said to have been completed in South Africa to a level that can justify the issuing of licences for exploration .

‘Environmental impacts of specific energy technologies and our ability to choose’

It is untrue that TKAG are uninterested in discussing the environmental impacts of alternatives to shale gas. Firstly, David is raking over old coals when he refers to ‘as long as the Karoo is saved’ – he knows full well from my previous responses that this involves the whole of South Africa. To put it plainly – if fracking were to be banned or relinquished in the Karoo but still faced in KZN or other provinces, our involvement would not diminish. I trust that after the fourth time it is now crystal clear: fracking is a South African national issue – not a Karoo issue.

David’s argument around ’a choice of energy options’ would imply that we are sitting at a great meeting of elders – with no current energy generating technologies in place – and the question under discussion is “Elders, what energy options shall we choose?” Now David knows full well that the other options have all been chosen and are implemented and committed to in varying degrees. This is not a question of “shall we choose coal over nuclear or fuel oil over wind or gas over coal?” The country is already heavily invested in coal – not only in energy generation but also in export revenues and local jobs.


It is inaccurate to say that one of my often-used anti-fracking arguments is the risk of corrupt practices in the shale gas industry. I have been abundantly clear on the fact that the oil and gas industry is proven to be criminal in their practices. David points to Italian Mafia and renewable energy as an example, but the Mafia on their best day, cannot compete with the largest companies in the world – on any timescale. And in any event – the example is irrelevant because we are speaking of an additional and new technology that is not yet licenced or practiced in this country. In terms of corruption, the geographically closer example of Nigeria is a case worth considering. Royal Dutch Shell has behaved criminally in that country. I am also on record of stating, as I do again here today that Shell have been dishonest in their campaign on shale gas in this country. This is not a risk it is a reality.

Speaking of generous subsidies, the oil and gas industry worldwide, despite posting record profits, enjoys substantial subsidies that have been in place so long that they can be said to be an intrinsic part of the business. I make no guarantees that renewable energy operators are more honest than fossil fuel pedlars. Eskom, some would say, at the heart of our energy debate, currently transfers to BHP Billiton; a subsidy calculated to eventually cost South Africans R11.5 billion. The point is that until our energy environment is holistically controlled in a business-like way, it may be short-sighted to accept at face value, Eskom’s lamentations about energy delivery capacity.

Government competence

I take David’s subtle point on the inefficiency of Ministers and his reference to their lack of learnedness and authority when making decisions on other energy sources. The question is thus: Do you believe David, based on your view (about a lack of Ministerial perspicacity) that the same team who has lead South Africa into its current energy dilemma should be trusted to guide the country through a decision on shale gas?

David raises my comment on ‘incompetent politicians’ as if we are back at the ‘choice table.’ The truth is that there are significant and reasonable questions about many aspects of shale gas mining being raised by diverse communities on different continents. Moreover, those questions and the activities of many of those communities, sometimes in direct defiance of their legislators cannot be said by David, or anyone else in this country, to have been satisfactorily addressed to the point that it can be argued that the issuing of licences is justified under the current circumstances.


Juxtaposing employment with carbon emissions makes no sense to me. The reference by TKAG to jobs is based on two solid points. (1) The oil and gas industry bases its most emotive marketing on the creation of jobs. So their claims demand a like response. (2) The jobs claimed (routinely) by the industry – in any continent ignores displaced jobs – the industry simply uses ‘blue sky’ economic theories to sketch a veritable employment Xanadu – and they have the money to push those claims in world media and the hallowed halls of politics.


Finally, I get David’s point. The Economic benefits of shale gas are immaterial when considered within a discussion that is exclusively focused on the environmental impact of extracting that gas relative to the environmental impacts of extracting or producing energy from other sources. TKAG invested specifically in a review of the Econometrix report because it is that report which has been adopted by the South African government. This can be proved by a review of public quotes by South African Ministers. Therefore, we decided that a vast expense for TKAG and its supporters was justified. The results stood up to three peer-reviews – something to which the Econometrix report – and its ambassadors – have not been subjected.

The elimination by David, ‘of the strength of the economic case’ from this discussion, whilst being novel, simply obliterates three of the four pillars on which the shale gas proponents rely.

Moving ahead

David’s closing view contained at least one bright spot – that is his reference to the ‘environment in the Karoo and other places’ – it appears that he has at last accepted that this is beyond treasuring the Karoo. Were I tempted, to label David and his ilk, in the hackneyed fashion that TKAG has been labelled, I most likely would bestow the rank of FATFIFA – Frack Ahead The Future Is Fracked Anyway.

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