Andreas Späth

Fracking is still a bad idea

2012-09-17 14:16

Andreas Späth

On the same day that the South African government decided to lift the moratorium on fracking, the European Union's environment directorate released a comprehensive 300-page report that identified the controversial method for mining natural gas in underground units of shale rock as a "high risk" to human health and the environment because of its potential to contaminate and deplete water resources, cause a loss of biodiversity, degrade air and land quality and trigger earthquakes.

The decision didn't exactly come as a surprise, of course. In May, Environmental Affairs Director-General Nosipho Ngcaba pronounced that there was “merit” in the idea, while Energy Minister Dipuo Peters called shale gas a “blessing from God” and declared that she prayed “on a daily basis” for a positive outcome from the interdepartmental panel set up to investigate fracking in South Africa.

Lo and behold, the panel’s report, only the executive summary of which has been released so far, clears the way for a "conditional approval of hydraulic fracturing" that allows exploration to proceed and is set to permit actual fracking operations once a "monitoring committee" and a "regulatory framework" have been established. It's the foot in the door the oil and gas industry has been lobbying for.

The episode has all the hallmarks of a successful attempt to rubber-stamp a preordained decision – an all too transparent and profoundly undemocratic manoeuvre in which setting up a “panel of experts” becomes little more than a state-led public relations stunt designed as a cooling off period whenever a significant part of the population is outraged by a controversial proposal. After a long enough span of time, the pseudo-scientific results of what can at best be a superficial desktop review of the issues involved are used to slip the decision past a hapless populace.

A "panel of experts" drawn from departments and parastatals of a government that is already enamoured with fracking can hardly be considered impartial or independent and to have expected any other outcome would have been naïve in the extreme.

Parts of the report might as well have been written by a Shell consultant. Many of the potential risks raised by anti-fracking activists are dutifully acknowledged only to be dismissed as nothing to be worried about in the face of proper regulation and "industry best practice".

We are, in other words, expected to believe that concerns such as possible groundwater pollution from toxic fracking fluids and escaping methane will be minimised by vigilant government supervision and an oil and gas industry that knows what it's doing. And this from a government that struggles to effectively regulate just about anything let alone what happens at thousands of natural gas boreholes spread over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres, and from an industry that has spilled millions of gallons of oil into the environment from the coast of Alaska to the rainforests of Ecuador and the Gulf of Mexico.

Peters has raised the spectre of the hungry rural poor whose opportunity of being lifted out of the squalor by the arrival of the fracking industry is supposedly being jeopardised by a bunch of tree-hugging city liberals. But exactly when did the South African government start to care about the rural poor anyway? And exactly when did the industrial-scale extraction of non-renewable natural resources ever really benefit anyone other than a small elite, an elite that happens to include the honourable minister herself.

Contrary to Peters' believe in the divine gift of millions of cubic metres of methane buried beneath the Karoo, the so-called "resource curse", a well known phenomenon around the world, is a much more likely scenario to be visited upon the impoverished people living there. Just ask the rural poor of Ogoniland how the extraction of oil from the Niger Delta by multi-billion dollar companies, Shell a champion among them, has elevated them out of poverty and improved their environment.

Suggestions that South Africa is an "energy scarce" country that needs shale gas to reduce its carbon footprint and dependence on other fossil fuels are red herrings. Instead of despoiling our unique natural heritage and burning even more climate-changing fossil fuels, we should concentrate on our country's exceptional potential for producing low-carbon energy from renewable sources.

Voice your opposition to fracking at a public demonstration outside Parliament from 10:30 this Saturday.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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Read more on:    dipuo peters  |  fracking  |  environment
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