WE HAVE reached a development T-junction. We can either accept, without thinking, the proposed R80-billion oil refinery, Project Mthombo, without an environmental impact assessment having been done – never mind Durban South and the pollution there, never mind scrutinising that extraordinary 18500 permanent jobs’ promise by our premier.
Never mind where the huge energy and water requirement is going to come from (while the squeeze on electricity steeples our fees, and we are banned from using our garden hoses). Never mind climate change and the fundamental dynamic that this phenomenon is being driven by the burning of fossil fuels (like oil). Never mind our global greenhouse gas reduction commitments in this regard.
Or we can say, absolutely no way: business as usual is no longer acceptable. We want nothing less than sustainable development that produces at least as many jobs but without the cost to social well-being and the environment. We’re going for a 21st century approach that pays more than lip-service to the realities of peak oil and climate change.
A leading local commentator on the energy industry and founder of the group Transition Network PE, Pierrelouis Lemercier, says this second scenario would be “like an open window for the future”, opening the way for thousands of sustainable and clean business opportunities.
Hypothetically, a solar panel factory costing R2-billion solar (so around one-fortieth of the cost of Mthombo) could produce 142MW worth of solar thin film PV panels per year, he says. It could be run by skilled labourers retrenched from the automotive sector, and would generate thousands of green jobs in the down-stream services’ and solar farm operation sectors.
At first, half the stock produced could go to the huge solar farms that the government is planning around Upington, and half could be sold to the growing African market, before absorption by the local emerging market.
This plant would anchor similar renewable energy enterprises (40 for the cost of one Mthombo) to transform Coega into “the RE manufacturing hub that many foreign investors are dreaming about”.
Ironically, the CDC, the parastatal managing the development of the Coega IDZ, where Mthombo will be positioned, if it is approved, said after the finance minister’s budget speech in February that it welcomed his focus on green energy. It said a specific zone has been earmarked at Coega for a green energy cluster – and this will entice green investors.
What, even if Mthombo is approved? Lemercier warns that potential renewable energy investors in Coega will be scared off and they will look to overseas (like Swiss company Oerlikon Solar, which left recently for Turkey and Morocco) or even to the IDZ in East London, which has positioned itself much better to receive them.
PetroSA says motivation for Mthombo is underpinned by the country’s demand for fuel. Propelled by the industrial and agricultural sectors, this demand is forecast to grow at 4.5% a year. (This apparently despite all the Karoo farmers who have warned the same parastatal their farms and their livelihoods will be destroyed if it approves Shell’s application to frack for gas.)
But even if we accept this figure – shockingly, the factor of peak oil seems to appear nowhere in our government’s reckoning.
Our global supply of crude is running out and as it does, dirtier tar sand will replace it, driving up greenhouse gases. Led by our government, we should all be looking at ways to reduce our reliance upon oil. That’s the challenge. Not spending billions to burn more of it.
If we go that route, what then, when we comprehend that the tank is nearly empty and we need a plan, but our communities are poisoned and our environment’s shot and our money’s spent?
We need to sit down and have an open discussion about Mthombo, and oppose any effort to bulldose it through. We need to make the right choice on this project, now.