Shell’s boss has a grand vision for gas

2012-03-10 09:17

It may very well prove fruitful for Bonang Mohale, Shell SA chairperson, that the “only thing that matters are my beautiful wife Susan and our two daughters, Tshepiso and Maneo”.

If the only thing that mattered was how the public perceived him, he would either have to prepare for a life of misery as he lives with public ridicule or develop into an insufferable sod as a consequence of social adoration.

Mohale is the face and voice of controversial shale gas or hydraulic fracturing – the process of extracting natural gas from underground sources in South Africa.

If Mohale and the numbers he and his company are presenting are to be believed, South Africa is on the cusp of wealth unprecedented since the discovery of gold in Johannesburg in the 1880s.

He will be the man to thank if hundreds of thousands who are hopeless and jobless find the jobs envisaged by Shell - if their numbers and predictions prove correct.

If he and economic consultancy Econometrix are wrong, he will be cursed by all for being the man under whose watch Shell was allowed to destroy a delicate and pristine ecological space for no more than a fistful of dollars.

Either way, the name Bonang Mohale is bound to be mentioned a good number of times when the story of corporate SA’s dedication to profitable businesses with respect to green issues is told.

The sheer size of the potential promised by hydraulic fracturing makes Mohale careful to manage expectations even of the hopeful.

“An Econometrix study shows that the potential economic impact that if you develop 20 trillion cubic feet (tcf) (out of a possible total 485 tcf) will contribute R80 billion or 3.3% (or R35 billion) to annual GDP contribution. Up to 300 000 people could be employed.

“At 50 tcf, the number (economic impact) jumps to R200 billion added to the South African economy and R90 billion to the GDP.”

The former Black Management Forum national deputy president is convinced that Shell has the support of the majority of citizens of the Karoo towns directly affected by fracking. He points out that 73% of the people polled want Shell to proceed with the exploration.

“The day that 50 million South Africans say they do not want us to explore gas in that area is the day that we will pack our bags and go. Not when it is a minority.”

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the minority. “Environmentalists that are opposed to this are a necessary part of this democracy. They have a critical role to play in keeping organisations like ours, that are already doing good work, better,” says Mohale.

The advantage of big organisations such as Shell, he reckons, is that they have a reputation to uphold and will therefore not jump ship at the first sign of trouble.

He points to how BP handled the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 as an example of how companies with a reputation are able to face up to their responsibilities and pay penalties for the error of their ways “and continue to thrive”.

He dismisses the view that his company bandies the jobs numbers about to bamboozle the jobless but hide the negative environmental impact fracking has.

“History has taught us that the rural and poor of our forebears have always had the most amazing respect for the sustainability of the environment.

“This is not only in literature but also in the idioms and axiomatic expressions. There is an African proverb that says ‘the beginning of wisdom is to plant a tree whose shade you will not enjoy’; the proverb o seke wa nyela sediba warning against defecating in a well because you might one day need to return to drink from it, all speak about issues of sustainability that is critical to development and survival of species.

Besides, the Karoo Shale Gas Community Forum gave Shell three conditions before it could give its unqualified support.

“They said to us, just because we are poor doesn’t mean we have no regard for the delicate and pristine nature of the Karoo. They said ‘we don’t want to compete for water with you.

“We want you to consider piping water from elsewhere to your drilling sites so that we too could have piped water closer to where we live.”

The third condition is that Shell consider employing labour intensive programmes rather than rely entirely on the technology that the company has at its disposal.

Shell says it will respond once government has made a decision on licensing.

Cynics and the optimists will all have to wait for the government decision to see whether Mohale’s outlook on life will herald a false dawn or a new day for South Africa.

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