Fracking could be the 100 billion US dollar energy game changer that Africa needs at the risk of destroying the Karoo.
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It’s has sparked conflict before a drill has touched the earth.
Like his fellow 3,000 farmers, Dickie Ogilvie won’t let fracking vie without a fight. Ogilvie gave up teaching to help his wife, Colleen, take over her brother’s farm, Doorndraai, 100 kilometers south west of Graaff Reinet. His fears have led him to pledge 3 rand for every hectare on his 14,000 hectare farm to fight fracking in court. Most farmers across the Karoo are as trenchant as him.
“Some guys have given a lump sum payment. Most of the other moneys are per hectare basis, the pledge varies from 1 rand a hectare to 10 rand (1 US dollar), depending how strongly a farmer feels. There is a lot of money to fight this if it goes to litigation process. Farmers have realized now how serious this can be,” says Ogilvie.
“Our resolution from the Aberdeen district is dire. I don’t believe they understand that if something goes wrong the Karoo is finished. You cannot rectify the water contamination, once it’s been contaminated it’s over, we will have to move off. It’s not only farms; the towns rely on underground water. My small little family can make a plan, but we are talking about whole communities in towns. It’s a huge problem, no answers are given, there is so much uncertainty.”
THE LEGAL BATTLE
The fierce litigation between big business and the Karoo’s landowners has been brewing since 2009, when fracking explorations were stopped in their tracks by the government to allow for regulations. Landowners locked horns with government over the lack of consultation and what they call flawed laws and uninformed environmental assessments.
(READ MORE: The issues of fracking in South Africa)
Their lobbying has seen some results, says Derek Light, the small-town lawyer from Graaff Reinet. The small offices he works in have been consumed by fracking for three years. Light even took a cell phone when he went for hip surgery so he wouldn’t miss anything. He represents hundreds of landowners, including millionaire Johann Rupert, the second richest man in Africa, who lives around the corner.
In September, four years after the first applications were submitted, baseline water testing began. The study, researched by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and financed by the Eastern Cape provincial government, looks at the Karoo’s underground water system.
(WATCH VIDEO: Fracking draft regulations released)
“Baseline testing is not done overnight, it’s a long process that takes two to three years. The timing of it has been poor, and it is something the oil companies should have done in their environmental management plan process, which they failed to do. It’s now being done by the taxpayer. The government should have had this information at their disposal when they first made their decisions on the whole process,” says Light.
He adds that the government jumped the gun. Drafts, issued in March and October 2013, were incredibly flawed and focused on regulating fracking while forgetting about the mining operations around it, says Light.
(WATCH VIDEO: Shell's perspective on fracking in S.Africa)
“Drilling in South Africa is not regulated at all. Shell and other companies feed off the fact that there are few documented cases of contamination from the actual fracking process. Because the wealth of contamination comes from the other process, you can’t divorce the one from the other. It’s shifting the emphasis on the height of the fracking process. It means the attention is taken away from the other harmful processes.”
FIGHTING ALL THE WAY
Another loud and stringent voice against fracking is that of Johnathan Deal, CEO of Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG). Strangely enough, he didn’t know about fracking until he read a news article in 2011 when Rupert was speaking out against it.
“I began to investigate and attended the Shell public meetings. It was very clear for me, with my corporate background, that Shell was trying to control the meetings. There was a very specific aim in those meetings and it wasn’t to tell the truth as far as I was concerned,” says Deal.
From his 40,000-hectare Eco-farm near Montagu, in the Karoo, Deal has been calling on the Presidency, the Public Protector and gas companies to revise their actions before fracking takes place. He’s not alone; Julius Kleynhans, the Head of Environmental Affairs at the NGO AfriForum, has declared it will back TKAG financially should it go to court.
“It is the balance of convenience. If companies and the state have invested enormous amounts of money and the public sits and watches what happens and wait for everything to be built and then goes and complains. It’s very difficult for a court to literally throw its investments away.”
(READ MORE: Last gasp for Eden: creating a peaceful buffer against fracking)
“If something goes wrong with a fracking well ten years later and those chemicals migrate 30 kilometers away, even if a farmer ends up with polluted water, what chance has he got of proving that it was from that well... if people get sick from air and water pollution, like what is being happening in the United States, who is going to pay for it? The state is; the people who pay tax. Not the companies that have shut down their operations when they have moved on somewhere else. It’s not just a Karoo problem,” says Deal.
“If fracking starts in this country and the gas reserves are there. We will see the technology of fracking march across this country just like it did in the United States. Geologically speaking the Karoo basin is where the gas bearing shale is thought to reside, and that extends right into Gauteng and parts of Mpumalanga. In fact it extends out of the northern borders of South Africa,” says Deal.
(READ MORE: The global reception of fracking)
Despite plans to halt shale gas explorations until proper research is completed, the government remains adamant it will go ahead and be a game changer.
“New regulations should be released in September, but we don’t yet know what they contain. All of this has happened without consultation. It seems what will happen are inadequate regulations will be passed, with inadequate consultation. We are then faced with serious decisions where we go from there. If the regulations are unlawful, that may have to be challenged in the Constitutional Court. It seems, from the ministers announcements, hot off the heels of the new regulations will be the issuing of licenses which seems to indicate government has already taken a decision on those, which should not be granted because they don’t comply with the new laws,” says Light.
The impact of exploration could be catastrophic, says Deal, especially since companies refuse to disclose the chemical composition of the additives. Chemical additives make up 1 per cent of the 20 million liters used for a well. On one pad there can be 32 wells.
“With exploration, the same risks are there, they have to frack to see if it’s there. Don’t come to this country and look for secrecy privileges. Don’t come and try hide behind commercial interests to hide the mix of chemicals, this is not America,” says Deal.
“The minute these licenses are issued, these corporates are going to carry on with what they want to do anyway. It’s going to be challenged. People are well aware of it. The minute those licenses are issued, they will be challenged,” says Ogilvie.
Landowners seem to be putting their money where their mouth is. One wonders what people across Africa, who don’t have money will do.
For more on this story read: Who said fracking was bad?