South African farmers went to the US to see what fracking might do to their land -- and what they learned terrified them. An American activist documents their experience and concerns.
South Africa announced the end to its moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) on September 7. The African National Congress-led government first declared the moratorium on fracking in April 2011 because of the growing public outcry. This controversial technique for extracting natural gas is a form of extreme fossil-fuel extraction being debated globally and the U.S. is watched and studied as more accidents and serious risks are reported as a result of this shale gas exploration and production.
The decision to end the moratorium in South Africa, which may have the fifth largest supply of natural gas in the world, has ignited another phase of opposition to fracking, as citizens demand more research and public education.
The Karoo, an arid farming region in the Eastern Cape of the country is where most of the natural gas is located. People concerned about how fracking affects farming and the water supply have raised red flags about the ANC’s ties to Royal Dutch Shell, the largest stakeholder in the gas reserves, which has other political parties in South Africa crying foul.
David Ross of the Democratic Alliance (DA) explained
The DA calls for the ANC-linked Batho Batho Trust to divest its 51% stake in Thebe Investments (Shell South Africa’s local empowerment partner). Through Thebe, the Batho Batho Trust effectively has a 12% stake in Shell SA Refining, and a 14% stake in Shell SA Marketing. Shell is currently an applicant for three gas exploration licenses. While these applications are not currently being processed, due to the moratorium instituted in April 2011, these applications, among others, will be considered for approval if and when the moratorium is lifted. The Batho Batho Trust was established 20 years ago by ANC members with a view to supporting socio-economic development in South Africa. But the Trust now provides donations to the ANC.
Faith in the governing party to effectively regulate industries and protect the environment is not high. One only has to look at the tragic circumstances around the acid mine drainage crisis caused by gold mining in Gauteng Province to be mistrustful of the inadequate track record of regulating industry. Gauteng is the smallest of South Africa’s nine provinces and the economic center of the country. It is estimated to have the largest population. The Vaal River on its southern border has extreme water contamination damage caused by the mining industry and it has been reported that the water supply of whole villages is contaminated from the vast gold field production.
Another consideration is the location of the world’s two largest coal power plants (Kusile and Medupi) in South Africa, located in the north and east of the country, an energy plan that is having disastrous polluting results.
Mining Minister Susan Shabangu of South Africa stated last summer in what is being called the Shabangu Promise that once the report was finalized the cabinet would, "go out to everybody. I can assure you that when it comes to fracking in the Karoo, we will engage with everybody. We will go to the people." But “the people” are not so happy with the government’s decision.
Jonathan Deal, the chair of Treasure Karoo Action Group
(TKAG), a community group fighting fracking in South Africa, lives on the edge of Cape Town. He has land in the Karoo which he clarified is not under threat of shale gas exploration, but he is still concerned about the region. His response to the government’s process in this decision is emphatic: “South Africans are waking up to this threat. The SA government decision to lift the moratorium has sent a clear signal across the world. Rather than the signal we believe Minister Shabangu wanted to send -- ‘South Africa is open for business’ -- the real signal is that our government has made a hasty and ill-researched decision that could set an irreversible process in motion.”
Deal is concerned that South Africa doesn’t have the expertise in permitting fracking and should be taking cues from the global community because of the high risks.
“Minister Shabangu and our cabinet have ignored the international status of fracking – rejected, by tens of millions of people in more than 155 jurisdictions around the world,” said Deal. “These people, in countries such as Bulgaria and France (and many in the United States who have seen and experienced the effects of the technology) don’t want the so-called ‘benefits’ offered by shale gas where they raise their children, get their drinking water, grow food and breed livestock. Neither our government, nor Royal Dutch Shell has ever dealt with this. And their patent avoidance of this very pertinent question is remarkable. Why is it that so many millions don’t want fracking? And what qualifies the South African decision in the face of the international bans?”
For filmmaker Jolynn Minnaar of Un-earthed: The Documentary
the issue of fracking in the Karoo is personal. “My parents have a farm in the Karoo and hearing this news, knowing now that my family home is at risk feels quite different. It has literally hit home,” said Minnaar. “As someone in the media and experiencing and understanding the heated debate, I know that the South African government is not in a position to make an informed decision.”
The Karoo, Minnaar explains, is a sparsely populated area. Most residents have little or no access to the Internet or social media, and hadn’t heard about fracking until a year ago.
“You’re unable to have a formal opposition unless you have awareness. Our government has a real lack of transparency. A frustrated government has made a rushed decision on poor research with a secret task force. The public was never consulted. Which studies did they look at? What is the government basing their decision on?” said Minnaar. “The South African media has reported on happenings but failed to investigate. They are not doing independent research. What is the shale South African energy plan?”
In search of more information about fracking, Minnaar traveled to the Catskills along with two Karoo farmers, Dougie Stern and Lukie Strydom.
They visited the Northeast on a fact-finding tour coordinated by Ithaca resident Hilary Acton and sponsored by their agricultural co-op.
Stern, a fourth-generation farmer on his land, says they only learned of the fracking plans in 2011 when Shell was forced to reveal them. But Stern believes the company has been less than forthcoming with the details. “We believe they told us half and as a result we became very suspicious. We used the Internet to do research and realized that they were not telling us the truth,” said Stern. “That is why we decided collectively to come to the USA with the support of our agribusiness.”
Like many people in the U.S. who are living near fracking operations, Stern is concerned about its effect on the water.
“We were told that our waters would not be polluted in any way at all and that the air, pollution wouldn’t affect people at all. The biggest concern we have is that of water. Our aquifers are not that deep and we’ve been learning that they are similar to yours, between 40 and 300 feet below the surface,” said Stern. “There is every probability of them being polluted and polluted specifically from spills and the way they handle the toxic waste that is brought up after the operation. Also they have been very cagey about informing us exactly what this is about. We’ve been learning from your scientists and your professional engineers what is happening and how important it is that we make it absolutely clear to our government that we insist on the management of the toxic waste that is removed. This is one of our greatest concerns.”
South Africa, Stern says, is a water-scarce country. If the aquifers become polluted the farming regions and food supplies would be ruined. The only winners from fracking would be industry and government. The citizens -- who stand to lose the most -- have nothing to gain.
“In South Africa the people don’t own the mineral rights, this is crucial, the government does,” said Minnaar. “So this limits public interactions, there is no financial cushion here, no money to be made by individuals. No landowners are financially rewarded here. There are only two players, industry and the government.”
That leaves concerned South Africans little choice but to find out for themselves how fracking could impact their communities. The unfortunate model of what could and is going wrong with fracking has been the United States.
“The more we learned the more scared we became,” said Lukie Strydom. “I believe everyone should go to Carter Road [in Dimock, PA] and visit Ron and Jean Carter just to smell what it is like to live in the middle of operations, to know what it’s like to live where your water well has been contaminated. The more you know the more questions you have. The oil companies should not behave in a cowboy style because it is important to communities that they are doing the job responsibly. We’re not necessarily against the operations but we are against them being done irresponsibly.”
Up against their own government and a powerful multinational, TKAG and the people of the Karoo are facing the fight of their lives. But Jonathan Deal is undaunted. “TKAG will, in the interim, continue to engage with stakeholders and organizations in opposition to fracking – local and global,” said Deal. “Our ‘appeal’ document has been ready for more than a year and when we see the conditions under which the licenses are issued, we will finalize that document and serve it on the minister in a move that will ultimately signal the start of a long battle.”
Preparations for legal opposition are underway by TKAG following the end to the fracking moratorium in the country. In Cape Town on September 22 there was a protest demanding an end to fracking at gates of Parliament, with environmental and citizens groups to coincide with the Global Frackdown
on that day.
“I am fighting to stop fracking for the same reason that communities from Wyoming to Pennsylvania don’t want it,” said Deal. “And it means the same to us, as what it does to the American public – whether landowner or city dweller – an unsustainable and polluting chase after another carbon resource.”