Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Don't Frack With Africa

Flowers in the springtime near Karoo-Tankwa National Park. The fragile desert ecosystem, including this very area of the Karoo, is under threat from oil companies

Most people around the world, particularly in the United States, know what hydraulic fracturing is: shooting a crude and secret mixture of chemicals and water deep into a shale deposit to break up the rock and release the trapped natural gas.

The process needs millions liters of water mixed with an unknown blend of chemicals including (but not limited to) benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), diesel fuel, naphthalene (moth ball) compounds, boric acid, arsenic, poly nuclear organic hydrocarbons, and other carcinogenic and toxic compounds.

For a great primer on hydraulic fracturing (called fracking) and what it has done to rural communities across America, particularly in my home in western Colorado, see my fellow videojournalist Josh Fox present his award winning documentary Gasland. It is a must-see for anyone who cares about clean drinking water, clean air, justice, and the human story behind fracking.

To Frack or Not to Frack?

Here in South Africa this year a debate has been raging across the country's last pristine environment, the Karoo Desert. An unlikely alliance of farmers, civil society organizations, foreign royalty and local environmental activists managed in April to get Mineral Resources Minister Joyce Shabangu to call for a moratorium on all shale gas exploration while her office conducts a comprehensive study on the process.

The players are the typical mixture of well-funded oil companies. Shell is the most high profile, but US based Falcon Oil and Gas and South Africa's Sasol have also been granted concessions to explore. As it stands today, no one has fracked yet, but in a recent public meeting with farmers Shell's hired representative Tisha Greyling of Golder Associates said, "If its not Shell, it will be someone else".

This sense of complete dominance is scary, even more so for someone like me, who has followed the fight to prevent more than three thousand gas wells being drilled in Garfield County where the Colorado River runs. If well-funded Americans could not keep these corporations out of their own back yards what chance do Africans have on a continent where money always talks the loudest? But there is a growing worldwide anger at these companies and a gathering wealth of information which is starting to wake consumers up to the destruction being done in their name. See Fracking Hell, The Untold Story on LinkTV here.

The Karoo Desert of South Africa is an ancient ecosystem with a vast and poorly understood groundwater system. Without knowing everything about how this water system works, it is impossible to say with any certainty that fracking there would be safe. Shell's proposed prospecting area includes about 100000km² of South Africa's arid heartland, and they have suggested they will blast seawater into the wells with the toxic slurry because the millions of liters of fresh water needed for the process would be too difficult to find in the desert.

The entire area subsists only on sub-surface water. There are no rivers, so almost every drop for drinking, irrigation and livestock is pulled up out of the ground. There is also the very real danger of radioactive pollution, since much of the Karoo has uranium in the ground. The long term impact of shooting toxic sludge into the ground is completely unknown, and any suggestions to the contrary are not based on facts writes researcher Glen Ashton.

South African billionaire mining magnate Johann Rupert and Princess Irene of the Netherlands both own farms in the region and have joined forces to fight Shell's plan to frack in the Karoo. Much of the area that Shell has been granted is private land, but the mineral rights are held by the government. This gives the company carte blanche to plow roads into ecologically sensitive areas, commandeer land from private owners, and even sink gas wells in areas that are currently protected. One site in their concession is next to the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, the SALT, at Sutherland. That the government would grant these concessions to the detriment of such national landmarks does not bode well for any suggested oversight they claim they would have once drilling commences.

The Southern Africa Large Telescope (SALT), the biggest one in the southern hemisphere. The area around the telescope, known for it's clear skies and starry nights, may soon become polluted by gas wells.

Get the Frack out of the Karoo
Nevertheless it is not impossible to foresee rational thought finally turning the tide against these companies. The Karoo is just big oil's latest battleground, but everywhere in the world communities and governments are waking up to the potential and real dangers of fracking. Last week an earthquake in Blackpool England brought a stop to fracking there. Across America from a local to a national level the impunity that oil and gas companies have operated under is being gradually eroded away. If communities and powerful individuals around the world stand up together, the Karoo fight for people's basic rights may just end up being the industry's Waterloo.

Get Involved

There are lots of ways to get involved, and even if you aren't in South Africa, this is a worldwide fight.

Sign the petition on the Petition Site here..

Have you experienced fracking? Been a victim of gas exploration and production activities? Then the Minister should hear directly from you.
Susan Shabangu, Minister of Mineral Resources of the Republic of South Africa
Private Bag X463
Pretoria 0001

Write to Shell, tell them you won't buy their products, ever, because of their activities in the Karoo. Then take your business elsewhere. Here is their address:
Shell headquarters
Carel van Bylandtlaan 16,
2596 HR The Hague, The Netherlands
Postal address:
PO box 162, 2501 AN The Hague, The Netherlands
Tel. +31 70 377 9111
Or email them here:

Marginal farmlands like this in South Africa's Eastern Cape are totally dependent upon irrigation from groundwater supplies, and the most sensitive to Fracking.

1 comment:

  1. No, no, NO to fracking! We want to LIVE in the Karoo - and we want to keep our fragile Karoo alive and LIVING all around us. WE WANT TO BREATHE TOGETHER!