A CLARION call for independent evaluation of fracking has emerged from the Karoo Development Conference. Neither the Petroleum Agency of South Africa nor Shell attended the Beaufort West event last week (October 15-17 2012), although they were invited, which is interesting.
Conference co-ordinator Dr Doreen Atkinson says it is a pity these two key role players did not seize the opportunity for engaging with an informed public forum.
"We feel like engagement has not even begun. We need the public space to talk about this development option.
"And we need an independent, multi-sectoral group of senior scientists to investigate all its aspects.”
This group should also include Shell, government departments and the agriculture and water research councils, she stresses.
"It’s in all our interests to see if this is a good development idea for the Karoo or not.”
The conference debated a range of Karoo development issues from farming to tourism, education and the SKA but "the big fracking debate” was high on the agenda.
The government in September lifted a year-long moratorium on fracking applications, on the back of a state probe which showed it could be safely done and it will generate thousands of jobs. Anti-frackers have challenged the decision, and the integrity and substance of the probe.
Atkinson says one of the alarm bells is that Karoo municipalities, at the coalface of fracking issues – not least water – were not consulted. And the issue has not been incorporated into municipal integrated development plans.
Tension between sectors is natural but it must be openly debated and differences weighed up, she says.
Farmers are asking how fracking will effect their renowned "Karoo Lamb” brand, which hinges on values like a clean environment. Karoo tourism is asking how fracking rigs will impact on the vast empty landscapes that underpin their product.
Because no fracking has been done in SA, the independent team will have to first consider the evidence from other countries where it has been done, she says.
Then they will need to do a desk top study of issues like groundwater, geology, ecology, livestock and human communities, to determine baselines, and if and how they will be effected by fracking.
This initial desk top approach is crucial, it seems to me. The exploration Shell wants to do itself involves fracking. But as The Herald revealed in September last year in our exposé of the debacle in Tioga County Pennsylvania, in the US, contamination can happen even during the initial drilling and perforation process, as rock is disturbed and gas migrates through newly opened fissures.
It is common cause that we do not know exactly how our Karoo groundwater network links. So if If we contaminate even one part during exploration, we could cause damage we will never be able to fix.
The conference’s keynote speaker was NMMU botanist Prof Richard Cowling, who is one of only five A-grade scientists in SA and one of only three South Africans on the US Academy of Sciences.
Cowling says allowing fracking will be "a serious wrong turn”. Rather than let the petroleum companies drive through "business as usual” by swopping one fossil fuel for another, dwindling oil for gas – now is the time to do things differently.
We need a new way that is sustainable environmentally, and that addresses economic inequality, he says. We need vigorous investment in renewable energy and public transport, and a change in our consumerist lifestyles. We need to regulate population growth, and we need to redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest.
I agree. On renewables – there is a study underway by Stellenbosch University’s Solar Thermal Energy Research Group which shows that concentrated solar power alone could supply 15 times South Africa’s current electricity demand.
Last, I would add to this solution recipe – permaculture: efficient, organic food production designed around zero waste and localised markets. This should be our cornerstone.