Andreas Späth

Gasland Karoo

2011-02-16 09:55

I have seen the future of the Karoo and it looks grim.

No, I haven’t turned clairvoyant overnight, but I did just watch Gasland, the Oscar-nominated documentary about extracting natural gas from underground shale formations in the United States.

In most cases, the extent of environmental disasters only becomes apparent with hindsight, when it’s too late. On precious few occasions do we get an inkling of what environmental impact an activity is likely to have because others have done us the dubious favour of acting as guinea pigs. By highlighting the devastating effects a hideously messy gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is having in the US, Gasland affords us a chilling vision of what is going to happen to the Karoo if Royal Dutch Shell and others, who have started to explore for gas shales in the region, have their way.

When an oil and gas company offers Josh Fox, the film’s director, nearly $100 000 to lease his piece of land located above the huge Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania, he sets out on a cross-country tour that opens his eyes to the dangers of fracking. The technique, which involves injecting millions of litres of water, sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals into boreholes at high pressure to release natural gas trapped in layers of gas shale as tiny bubbles, was developed by the American company Halliburton.

In 2005, then US Vice President Dick Cheney, who just happened to have been Halliburton’s Chairperson and CEO between 1995 and 2000, helped to push an Energy Bill through Congress that exempted the activities of oil and gas companies from the existing Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and various other environmental laws and regulations. Known as the “Halliburton loophole”, this opened the floodgates on one of the most destructive episodes of natural resource exploitation in history.

Confronted with some 450 000 fracking wells in 34 states, Fox documents a litany of complaints from people living near gas drilling operations: domestic groundwater wells contaminated with natural gas, fracking chemicals and other toxins; farm animals losing hair and weight; chronic headaches and more debilitating human health problems; hazardous air pollution; open wastewater pits; hugely increased truck traffic; mini refineries, pipelines and storage facilities at every well site; natural gas bubbling from formerly pristine creeks; and, perhaps most notoriously, several households whose tap water can be set alight. We can look forward to all of these in the Karoo!

The gas industry doesn’t think there’s a problem. Fracking is adequately regulated, poses no real threat to underground drinking water, doesn’t need to be investigated any further and reports to the contrary are incorrect, they say. Pro-drilling groups like Energy in Depth have gone as far as writing a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences telling them that Gasland should be ineligible for a best documentary feature Oscar, prompting Fox to publicly defend the validity of his film in a point-by-point rebuttal.

There are several parallels between what has happened in the US and what may well happen in the Karoo: stunningly beautiful big-sky landscapes, sparsely inhabited by salt-of-the-earth type people, sitting on a petrified ocean of gas billions. If American regulators were unable to protect their citizens and environment from an industry that’s clearly under-funded in the moral conscience department, what are our chances of saving the Karoo from a similar fate?

In the words of Lisa Bracken, who appears in Gasland:

“The corporate business model is to come into an area, develop it as fast as you can and if you trash anything you make the people who you impact prove it. You make ‘em argue it in a court of law and the last person standing gets bought off and you move on.”

It’s not too late to prevent the Karoo from turning into another Gasland. The time to stop this unique, ecologically fragile, historically, archaeologically and geologically invaluable national treasure from being trashed for a few dirty gas dollars is right now!

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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