Which way will we go?

2012-07-16 00:00

HIGHLIGHTING the need for a more skilled workforce, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, recently encouraged youngsters to choose science and technology as a career path. She was at a prize-giving event linked to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope — the world’s largest radio telescope that will be hosted in the Karoo.

Pandor said: “We don’t want to rely on extracting raw materials from mines and exporting them to other countries any longer. Many leading economies in the world produce no mining raw materials at all. They rely on knowledge and innovation for economic growth.”

Pandor should be applauded for her visionary remarks. The best thing she could do for the country right now is schedule an appointment with Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters, who appears to take quite the opposite view to her counterpart.

Some might recall the remark Peters made about shale gas exploration. “It would be wrong for us to not use the resources that God left us with. This is a blessing that God gives us, and we need to exploit it for the benefit of the people,” she said.

Peters apparently couldn’t care less about sending armies more of our people into miserable, low-waged, low-skilled jobs. This is what natural-resource exploitation normally results in and there’s tons of evidence in South Africa’s mining industry.

Peters is taking every opportunity to lead the drumbeat for fracking in the Karoo. With just days to go before the Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, makes a ruling on applications for shale gas exploration, Peters again very publicly endorsed fracking.

Speaking at the Infrastructure Africa Business Forum that was held in Sandton this week, she said: “President Jacob Zuma always speaks about overcoming poverty and unemployment. If fracking is safe, then it should be the way to go.”

Remember how the media lined up behind George Bush when he led the drumbeat for the invasion of Iraq based on bogus evidence and inexplicable logic? Well, it seems that our Minister of Energy has a willing accomplice in some sectors of our media too, who this time are discrediting the science on climate change to build a case for fracking in the Karoo. Recently, we’ve been treated to business columnist Stephen Mulholland’s deliriously optimistic The Good News about Fracking, which appeared in the Business Times on July 8.

Of course, the energy industry has also taken full advantage of its access to the media. Shell’s general manager of Upstream Operations, Jan Willem Eggink, produced an article that appeared in South African newspapers in October last year, in which he argued that it is a “major misconception” that hydraulic fracturing poses a risk to fresh-water aquifers.

The article appeared after the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa “ruled that several of Shell’s advertised claims — including one that said fracking had never led to groundwater contamination — were misleading or unsubstantiated and should be withdrawn. Meanwhile, the success of the United States gas industry is routinely quoted by energy companies and our government to make the case for fracking in South Africa. But that picture of success is fraught with problems, as Oscar-nominated Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary, Gasland, showed us, with footage of Mike Markham setting his tap water on fire.

The gas industry mounted a campaign against Fox after his documentary was released. Eggink’s 2011 article in South African newspapers also made an effort to respond to the scene in the movie where Markham sets his water alight, of course completely downplaying the connection between fracking and his methane-filled explosive water.

But, as Fox points out in his follow-up to Gasland, The Sky is Pink, the natural gas industry will stop at nothing to grow its profits. Sixty years after the U.S. tobacco industry employed public relations firm Hill and Knowlton to cast doubt on scientific research that highlighted the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, the American Natural Gas Association has hired the same firm to purge the connection between shale gas fracking and the contamination of water from the public’s mind.

Their modus operandi, contends Naomi Oreskes, author of the book Merchants of Doubt, is to create a debate in the public discourse, thereby fostering doubt. This debate, of course, leads to uncertainty and confusion, which creates the space for corporations to move in and do exactly as they please, while the public and the media engage in endless debate fuelled by public relations-driven journalism.

As the day approaches when Shabangu will make her decision on shale gas exploration in the Karoo, who is shaping the debate on fracking in South Africa? Can we trust a government locked into the unhealthy minerals-energy complex? Can we trust an industry that has a notoriously poor social and environmental record?

It’s ironic that the heavenly oriented SKA project, so forward-thinking in its vision and so magnanimous in its goals, could some day find itself within a stone’s throw of 1 500 ghastly gas-drilling wells that Shell is planning to plonk on the pristine Karoo landscape. It certainly doesn’t conjure up an image of serene stargazing, neither for the scientists nor for the many tourists SKA could potentially attract.

It doesn’t bode well for our future generations. When Pandor looked into the young faces at the SKA-Meerkat Schools Competition prize-giving event, I’m sure she saw a brighter future than this for them.

— The South African Civil

Society Information Service.

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