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Story 4

Frack that!

UNTOLDSTORIES

Dear government.

How will you handle a pollution spill from a fracking well?

Sincerely,
Some concerned folk in the civil society movement.

In a cut-budget blog, EMG’s rent-a-pen, Leonie Joubert, plunges into the world of access-to-information by asking the government how it will police the harvesting of energy from our ‘commons’. Selfies, screenshots and random pictures by the blogger herself . Added extras by photographer Sam Reinders.

The boss has got a madcap plan: do an access-to-information number on government.

The madcap plan - November-ish 2013

We’re keeping this low-budget: me; a desk in a back office in Observatory, where I’ve got a borrowed phone and a laptop.

The problem - also November-ish 2013

EMG doesn’t do top-down. Everyone has an equal say. Which is all very fair and egalitarian, but hell it can be both invigorating and frustrating.

The pow wow - December-ish 2013

The process of pumping a mixture of water, chemicals and sand deep into the shale bedrock to shatter the rock and release the natural gas.

What the frack!? - Dawn of 2014

An overview of some of the important milestones in fracking.

What about us? - 8 January 2014

As chief custodian of the resources that belong to the people of SA, our government has got to juggle some conflicting responsibilities.

Hello guv! By the people, for the people? - 9 January 2014

We wanted a simple, direct question to put to government - one that couldn’t be sidestepped with confusing spin-doctoring.

The big question - 14 January 2014

I should’ve gone straight to the guys on the EMG team. They’ve been down this road before.

The goose chase - 21 January 2014

DGs are a bit like the CEOs of companies - they head things up, they know what’s happening.

The ‘duh!’ moment - 4 February 2014

Journalistically speaking, I should come clean with the departments and tell them that they’re being watched.

The ethical question - 7 February 2014

The Daily Maverick opened Valentine’s Day with an cautionary note on fracking, from the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG).

From Zuma, with love - 14 Feb (V-day) '14

Energy independence for energy-importing countries, or regions, could shift the geopolitical chessboard out of check-mate.

The global chessboard - 18 February 2014

I’m sitting on the phone listening to some jaunty looped message from a Dept. of Mineral Resources automaton, telling me how important this call is to them.

Slow day in the office - 18 February 2014

‘No one in their right mind has unprotected sex these days, right? Well the same should apply to fracking.‘

Let’s talk about sex - 20 February 2014

The DWA and DEA have been busy: they’re batting our email from one person to the next while they try to find someone to answer the questions.

Still no word - 24 February 2014

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve called Dr. Ramontja’s two assistants at the Department of Mineral Resources.

‘This mail box is full’ - 3 March 2014

A marvel! Finally, Tshepo answers the phone at the DG’s office in the Department of Mineral Resources.

The slumbering DMR awakes - 4 March 2014

Shell says fracking isn’t a ‘done deal’ the way most think it is, according to today’s Cape Times.

It’s not ‘a done deal’ - 11 March 2014

I’ve often thrown about the term ‘the precautionary principle’, usually in the context of nuclear energy, GMOs and even fracking.

The precautionary principle - 12 March 2014

After a day of telephone tag, I manage to pin Carin Bosman down for a solid good half hour analysis of the DWA’s response to our letter.

The goldmine - 14 March 2014

By removing the word ‘interested’ from the original wording in the MPRD Amendment Bill they can shove civil society groups from blocking the department to out prospecting rights.

What’s in a word? - 14 March 2014

It’s financial year end, people are busy. But a second call to DWA’s Anet Muir turns up the best practices documents.

The tried and tested way - 18 March 2014

I guess it’s fair to say that the various departments have been co-operative in terms of giving us the information we asked for.

Wrapping up - 25 March 2014

Business Day’s Sue Blaine writing that ‘Fracking chemicals will put Karoo water at risk, says UK climate envoy’.

Stern Report author weighs in - 27 March 2014

Anet Muir gets back to me with the ‘tried and tested’ best practices.

Water Affairs reverts once more - 29 March 2014

Turns out the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is already well on top of these ‘best practices’.

The lefties’ alternative regulations - 1 April 2014

Government is so invested in fracking but can they be sure they’re making impartial decisions in the SA Public's interest.

Water vs Energy: the final wrap-up - 6 April 2014

The madcap plan - November-ish 2013

The boss has got a madcap plan: do an access-to-information number on government to a) test how prepared they are for the possible environmental fallout of fracking, and b) to see how willing they are to be transparent with the public.

What’s with the mask? To quote the Beeb (BBC): ‘The sinister Guy Fawkes mask made famous by the film V for Vendetta has become an emblem for anti-establishment protest groups.’ We (the EMG team, that is) thought it fitting to add a touch of anti-establishmentism to our blog.

The problem - also November-ish 2013

We’re keeping this low-budget: me; a desk in a back office in Observatory, Cape Town, where I’ve got a borrowed phone (when my one colleague ducks out for a smoke, I wheel over and hijack her line); and a laptop.

Oh, and the razor sharp minds of the EMG crew: these guys understand the kind of big-picture stuff on all things environmental, and they can spot an evasive politician from a thousand yards.

With that lot working in the engine room of the project, we can’t possibly go wrong, ja?

The back-story is that this is part of a four-part series where we’re trying to document some of EMG’s untold stories. This was always going to be Part Four. We don’t have time for a Plan B, so I’ve got to make it work.

The pow wow - December-ish 2013

We huddle together in the chill room in our Observatory office to have our first pow-wow about the merits of this approach to the fracking story. One wall in the front room is sloughing paint, and a phone cable is dripping from its housing.

The problem with critical thinkers is that they’re, well, critical. And EMG doesn’t do top-down. It’s all about community engagement. Everyone has an equal say. Which is all very fair and egalitarian, but hell it can be both invigorating and frustrating. Everyone weighs in. We hack away at this rough-hewn block of an idea for a good hour or so and leave with nothing but more questions:

  • is it too gimmicky?
  • does it really reflect the work EMG does at a policy and advocacy level?
  • will it add to civil society’s arsenal of information?
We wrap up, but we’re no closer to where I should go from here.

What the frack!? - Dawn of 2014

Fracking: a process of pumping a mixture of water, chemicals and sand deep into the shale bedrock to shatter the rock and release the natural gas buried deep in the rock. The name is concertina-ed from the word ‘hydraulic fracturing’.

The extraction tech has been around for a while, but only in the past decade has there been such a surge of interest in this method. This animation gives a pretty balanced overview of why it’s so controversial.

What about us? - 8 January 2014

2010/11: Shale gas hits the SA energy agenda in a big way in late 2010, with a slew of applications to government, to prospect for shale gas. Shell is the most high profile of the wannabe applicants. Applications are scattered across an area covering about 40 percent of the country.

2012: Civil society pushes back, lobbying government to err on the side of caution. Government places a moratorium on the issuing of exploration licences.

2013: The moratorium is lifted, but fracking gets listed as a ‘controlled activity’, meaning companies need a water licence to do it. Then the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) publishes the draft policy for how the mining should happen.

2014: Come February, it’s budget speech time. With it, a clarion call from Treasury: Fracking is well and truly on the agenda. Again and again, different departments’ ministries use the word ‘game changer’ when talking about fracking, as if some kind of intra-departmental memo has been dispatched by the executive. Even Number One uses it in his State of the Nation address.

Here’s a great overview of some of the important milestones, courtesy of the Centre for Environmental Rights.

Hello guv! By the people, for the people? - 9 January 2014

As chief custodian of the resources that belong to the people of South Africa, our government has got to juggle some conflicting responsibilities:

  • look after our water (Section 27 of the Constitution);
  • look after our environment (Section 24 of the Constitution);
  • decide which private companies get to extract the mineral resources that belong to the citizens, and to make sure it happens in a way that benefits the people of the country;
  • make sure the country is ‘energy secure’ (we need affordable energy for development, so people can achieve a certain basic standard of living, and so the economy can keep ticking over).

The big question - 14 January 2014

We wanted a simple, direct question to put to government - one that couldn’t be sidestepped with confusing spin-doctoring. It’s not just about getting technical information from the various departments about fracking. It is rather to test how open they are to show the public their cards. It is about access to information more than just fracking.

Our first stab at the question:

  • where will the first fracking well be drilled?

which leads into another thought:

  • how much water will be needed and where will it come from?

But a quick call to the Centre for Environmental Rights’ Melissa Fourie puts paid to this line of attack.

‘They’ll sidestep this one easily,’ (I’m paraphrasing here), ‘because they haven’t issued licences to drill exploratory wells yet. They’ll just say ”we don’t know until the licences are out”.’

The 2013 moratorium on issuing of exploratory fracking licences has been lifted, and the draft policy on mining is out for public comment - but until the first licences are issued, and the policy cemented in a gazette, too much is up in the air.

How about asking them something about pollution? So, thanks to Melissa, this is what we’re going for:

  • what measures are in place to test whether fracking fluid has leaked from an exploration well, into the surrounding groundwater?
  • should such a spill occur, how will this contamination, and associated safety procedures, be communicated to the affected communities?

Jess Wilson, head of EMG’s climate and water team, reckons it was a good call. Head honcho Stephen gives the all clear. We’re a ‘go’ on Mission Untold Stories Part Four.

The goose chase - 21 January 2014

I should’ve gone straight to the guys on the EMG team. They’ve been down this road before. Instead, I Google each department to get their switchboard numbers and phone the ‘front desk’ to find out who I should send the query letter to. Gah! What a waste of time!

‘Send it to me,’ says a chipper sounding Thabang at the Department of Water Affairs' (DWA) call centre, ‘I’ll pass it on.’

I’m thrilled by his enthusiasm, but not convinced this is going to get me anywhere.

The Department of Environmental Affairs' (DEA) call centre hands me over to the ‘authorisations office’ in NEMA people (National Environmental Management Act) - because they deal with ‘environmental impact’ stuff.

The Department of Mineral Resources (DMA) is more obtuse. When I tell the switchboard I need to get some information from the department, they send me through to ‘legal services’.

‘Have you paid the fee and filled out a (something inaudible) form?’ the woman asks me.

‘Um… sorry… what form? And why do I have to pay money?’

‘If you want to request records under the Access to Information Act, you need to pay R35 and fill out…. (and her voice disappears again).’

I realise I’m being a bit stupid here, that I’m probably not explaining myself terribly well. But I guess your average member of the public wouldn’t know either. So by making this rookie mistake, I’m stress testing the system for the rest of us.

‘No no, I’m not after existing records, I want to understand if the department knows how it will deal with any pollution relating to fracking, should there be a spill into the water table.’

So I get sent through to an environmental officer who deals with health and safety issues. This is starting to have a ‘WTF’ feeling. I wish I had recorded the conversation because it sounded a bit like me and a Martian trying to order Chinese takeaways off of a menu written in Cantonese. Neither of us knew what the hell the other was saying.

It really doesn’t bode terribly well, though. Here we have a health and safety officer in the government’s mining arm, who was unable to piece together the link between ground water, fracking fluids and contaminating ‘spills’.

The ‘duh!’ moment - 4 February 2014

Jessica to the rescue.

‘Best to go straight to the DGs for this kind of info,’ she fires back by email, when I mutter something about my shaky start.

DGs are a bit like the CEOs of companies - they head things up, they know what’s happening. Even though they’re political appointees, they still have the technical know-how of the workings of the beast.

The oracle (Google), delivers:

  • Trevor Balzer is the acting DG at Water Affairs (012 336 8744; balzert@dwa.gov.za) (I remember people complaining about how many departments ended up with nearly permanent ‘acting DGs’ because full time people weren’t being appointed);
  • Nosipho Ngcaba is the DG at Environmental Affairs (086 111 2468 or 012 310 391; dg@environment.gov.za);
  • Dr. Thibedi Ramontja’s the DG at Mineral Resources (the website only gives a landline number, 012 444 3000, so I call and get given the contact details for his PA, Nwabisa, nwabisa.qwanyashe@dmr.gov.za, and an admin person, Tshepo, tshepo.motsuenyane@dmr.gov.za).

Show and tell: the ethical question - 7 February 2014

Journalistically speaking, I should come clean with the departments and tell them that they’re being watched, that this correspondence isn’t just about the content, but on how they respond (if at all!). I want to test how they’d respond to an ordinary member of the public, or a lowly civil society organisation, not how they’d respond to a media voice like a newspaper. The idea is to see how they’ll respond when they don’t know they’re being watched.

From Zuma, with love - 14 February (V-day) 2014

No roses. No flowers. No invitations to become the sixth First Lady. But the message from the Prez in the State of the Nation address is gushing: Fracking is a game-changer for the SA economy and the Karoo.

Looks like this is the spin-term doing the rounds because last week Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu also gave fracking the thumbs-up at a mining ‘indaba' in Cape Town where she also called it a ‘game changer’.

All looking a little stage-managed, no?

The Daily Maverick opened Valentine’s Day with an unexpected cautionary note on fracking, from the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) activist Jonathan Deal: ‘Our government hasn’t adequately done its duty in researching the implications of shale gas. In election year, it is up to citizens to decide whether they want to continue eating the fruit of the poisoned tree.’

I wasn’t expecting that, especially since the Daily Maverick usually runs a column by Ivo Vegter, the pro-capitalist-free-market columnist and ‘extreme environmentalist’ (who seems to have styled himself on Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish ‘skeptical environmentalist’) whose entire brand is built on being the neo-liberal contrarian on matters green.

The global chessboard - 18 February 2014

I hadn’t thought about this…

Today’s business paper in the Cape Times: What happens if cheap shale gas pries the Middle East’s grasp off the throat of global energy? Energy independence for big energy - importing countries (like the US), or regions (Europe), could shift the geopolitical chessboard out of check-mate.

The Saudis are getting a little nervous, argues retired communications fellow Keith Bryer in the Cape Times’ Business Report. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait get so much revenue from oil that they can pretty much support their population on a welfare system. Who needs to work when you get free healthcare and education, interest-free home loans, cheap-as-dirt land prices or a 50/50 chance of getting a job with the state (also a form of social welfare, argues Bryer).

So while Saudi princes are muttering anxiously about survival in a post-oil-dependency, other countries are probably delighted to wriggle free from OPEC’s tight grip.

Slow day in the office - 18 February 2014

Puzzled by the cracking ceiling (how’d water damage come from a room above us that isn’t plumbed?); ouch that hurts (my neck is playing up again, not great ahead of this weekend’s massive mountain run); random chatter with Mandy the Goth Anarchist office mate (who recently quit smoking so I can’t get to her desk anymore to use the phone) about the heat, body odour, love and Smashing Pumpkins lyrics. I’m sitting on the phone listening to some jaunty looped message from a Department of Mineral Resources automaton, telling me how important this call is to them. To pass the time, I ask Mandy why she doesn’t vote. What follows is an epic Mandy rant: ‘I’m an anarchist! I give my power to nobody! No one speaks on my behalf!’

‘Mineral Resources doesn’t want to speak to me today,’ I mutter to no one in particular, when no one answers.

‘Poppet, that’s not surprising!’ says Mandy.

It’s a week since I sent the emails through to the respective DGs and still no news. So I follow up with a phone call. Balzer (the Water Affairs DG) has been out of the office for a week, but his PA Ivy says I should resend the email to her and then hangs up before I can ask for her address. Ngcaba (Environmental Affairs DG) probably hasn’t had a chance to respond but I am asked to resend the email as a prompt to the efficient lady on the other end of the line. I’ve still only got the Mineral Resources auto-voice whispering sweet nothings and no sign of Ramontja’s PA or admin person, who I emailed.

I wander through to the front office to use the reception desk phone.

One of the local cross dressers (this is Observatory, after all), minces down the pavement outside, looking like a minx in a spray-on miniskirt dress (is there such a thing?) and before you know it I’m thinking about Ivo Vegter’s trademark fedora versus Bjorn Lomborg’s bottle-shock blonde toupee-like mop.

My neck still hurts.

Let’s talk about sex - 20 February 2014

Stephen plonks himself down on a swivell chair in my office and starts telling me about a larger-than-life character he heard speaking at a fracking discussion hosted by Greenpeace last night.

‘Carin Bosman’s a water quality expert. She stands up and says ”I’m not going to talk about fracking. I’m going to talk about sex!”,’ Stephen cackles.

‘You’ve got to speak to her. She’s there, saying ”no one in their right mind has unprotected sex these days, right? Well the same should apply to fracking.”,’ Stephen says, trawling his memory for her precise words.

Google to the rescue again. Turns out Carin’s a trained chemist, was a water standards expert with the DWA for years, and now works as a consultant. She’s a heavy weight in the civil society movement on fracking.

Still no word - 24 February 2014

The DWA and DEA have been busy: they’re batting our email from one person to the next while they try to find someone to answer the questions.

The Water Affairs DG’s office passes the query on to Anet Muir, the acting Chief Director for compliance monitoring, the ‘manager for regulation of fracking with regard to the protection of the water resource’. When I follow up, her phone rings and rings.

But bingo!

An email from Environmental Affairs pops into my inbox, only a month after I first dropped them a line:

  • water protection is the job of Water Affairs, so I need to take the matter up with them;
  • the ‘Environmental Management Programme’, which is currently required to be approved as part of the MPRD (I’m presuming, relating to the Mining and Petroleum Resource Development Act or the associated amendment bill) process, will similarly identify the manner in which spills will be managed. The EMPR is approved by the Department of Mineral Resources prior to the Mining Right being issued’, they say. Noted. PDF from department.

As I read, I am thinking that the department needs someone to copy check their letters as a few typos and grammatical errors have slipped through.

There is zip from the Department of Minerals and Energy though. The voicemails of the two assistants whose numbers I have been given are clogged up with old undeleted messages. It won’t let me leave a voicemail.

‘This mail box is full’ - 3 March 2014

‘This mail box is full and is not taking voicemail at this time’ in a saccharine female American accent. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve called Dr. Ramontja’s two assistants at the Department of Mineral Resources, but keep getting this message. Seems they’re not in the office much and don’t check their mail often.

But eureka! I dig about through my mail and find a reply that’s been sitting in the in-tray since last week. Don’t know why I hadn’t seen it. It’s from Water Affairs, with a nice fleshy response. Now I’ve got something to go on. I spend the afternoon reading it and dropping in some query notes, which I email off to the rest of the EMG team. A quick ‘thank you’ note to the DWA gets an ‘I hope that helps’ reply. All very informal and courteous, yet it suggests that someone is actually reading the emails on the other side.

The slumbering DMR awakes - 4 March 2014

‘Hello, Tshepo speaking?’

A marvel! Finally, Tshepo answers the phone at the DG’s office in the Department of Mineral Resources. I was beginning to think the two admin people were a figment of someone’s imagination.

‘Ja, I’m really sorry, ma’am,’ says the groomed and uber-polite voice on the other end of the line, ‘but things have been really hectic here with Parliament opening and everything. And we’re still waiting for the fracking policy to go through, and we have a position on how to deal with the communications side…’

I’m flabbergasted. Not only did he put two and two together (me, from EMG, with the email sent three weeks ago) but he actually remembered the content of the email. Someone actually read it. I’m feeling marginally less cynical about the departments, this one included. Seems the PAs in these offices aren’t just typists.

It’s not ‘a done deal’ - 11 March 2014

Shell says fracking isn’t a ‘done deal’ the way most think it is, according to today’s Cape Times.

‘We want to go into exploration. As you get to understand the geology underground you can work out what is the economically recoverable volume… then you can come to a viable return,’ writes environmental reporter Melanie Gosling, quoting Shell ‘upstream manager’ Niall Kramer.

First, a US report reckoned we had 485 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of shale gas, says the article.

‘This was later revised to 370 tcf. Now the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) estimates Karoo serves to be around 40 tcf… Shell wants to put down between six and 24 exploration wells. If it finds reserves which are ‘attractive and economically viable’ it would apply for a licence to frack, Kramer said.’

That’s some pretty radical adjusting of estimates… how much lower can they really go?

Pole-pole, Swahili speak for the precautionary principle - 12 March 2014

I’ve often thrown about the term ‘the precautionary principle’, usually in the context of nuclear energy, GMOs and even fracking. My understanding of the term is that one should always err on the side of caution - rather don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. Truth be told, though, if someone had asked me to explain what it really means, I wouldn’t know where to start.

I finally track down Carin Bosman - she of the ‘safe sex’ analogy. Turns out, she’s a walking arsenal for anyone wanting a bit of clear-headed discussion on why a pole-pole (slowly does it) approach is best.

The precautionary principle, she tells me, amounts to this: reasonable suspicion of harm + scientific uncertainty = a duty to prevent harm from happening = slow down and think before you leap in.

When it comes to environmental protection, prevent harm, rather than try to mop up the mess.

I’m lifting this from one of the slides on the precautionary principle Carin uses in her talks on fracking:

The Precautionary Principle, according to Carin: ‘If there is reasonable suspicion of harm, accompanied by scientific uncertainty, then a duty to take action to prevent the harm is imposed.’ In the old days of risk assessment, uncertainty was seen as a green light to go ahead; these days it’s treated as an orange or red light.

The goldmine - 14 March 2014

After a day of telephone tag, I manage to pin Carin Bosman down for a solid good half hour analysis of the DWA’s response to our letter. She’s a trained chemist, and was once one of the DWA’s big guns on matters of water standards, testing and licencing requirements for years.

Now she’s a consultant, and she knows the system backwards.

This kind of insider knowledge is the whetstone against which government policy should get honed - hopefully, but who knows at this stage.

Carin’s analysis of the department’s response to our questions is pretty searing.

a) Toxic sludge: it’s not inside, it’s on top!

Don’t be distracted by the story about all this drilling apparently happening 5km underground. The real threat to the groundwater is much closer to the surface - and the department doesn’t have the human capacity to make sure what happens at the surface doesn’t become a pollution spill that we’re saddled with for a millennia. Here’s why.

The wells
‘Fracking wells vary between 5km and 200m… and it’s the top aquifers that will be more under threat from leaking,’ Carin says.

The dams
The leaking of returned fracking fluid from above-ground storage ponds is the worry. This is because the regulations, as they stand, fail to specify in enough detail how the ponds should be sealed and lined.

‘A hazardous waste disposal dam like this should be made of various layers of clay, leachate protection layers, and gravelly leachate collection layers that are 2m thick, and then it should be lined with a 2mm thick plastic liner, amongst other things,’ explains Carin. Carin continues,‘There also needs to be continuous monitoring so that as soon as something shows up in the leachate layers, you know the plastic has perished and you can go in and clean up.’

None of this is in the current regulations, according to her.

b) The one-man bottle neck

When a containment dam like this is designed, it has to be approved by the department before it can be built. But the DWA only has one engineer to do this, and the poor bloke’s so over-stretched that there’s a year-long waiting list for his time.

‘We’re waiting for approval on an acid mine drainage control dam for another client in Mpumalanga. If we got the go-ahead, it’d take three months to build. But we can’t get an appointment with the department’s engineer for a year to approve the design. So in the meantime, this acid mine spill just keeps leaking into the environment.’

c) Best what!?

‘These best practices to prevent fracking leaks? Never heard of them. Show me!’

And so I drop the department another email, asking for them.

d) A Potemkin village

The up-beat ‘we’ll follow the best practices’ email from the department is starting to look like a Potemkin village: a pretty front of street houses to trick the visitor into believing the place is prospering when in fact it’s just a fake veneer for a faux village.

As a consultant, Carin audits a lot of DWA-issued mining licences and the various conditions they impose on the mining company or industry.

‘In about 80 percent of those cases, the licences aren’t auditable. Many aren’t even applicable to the site in question. The conditions in a licence often just look like copy-and-paste jobs, as if a non-technical person has put the licence together.

‘Here’s an example: one gold mining licence talked about the conditions required for the facility’s uranium processing plant. But this particular mine doesn’t have a uranium processing plant, the closest one is 50km away.’

Many of South Africa’s sewerage works don’t comply with their licensing conditions and are failing, which results in untreated sewerage running into our rivers and wetlands. This is not a great reflection of the department’s capacity to handle a relatively well-established technology. If they can’t get that right, how are they going to manage on the fracking side where there are so many unknowns?

e) Condomise: safe sex and the precautionary principle

‘No one in this day and age has unprotected sex with a stranger, right? Well, that’s what we call the precautionary approach, because the consequences of something going wrong - getting pregnant, or getting certain diseases - are irreversible, and are obvious to anyone with two brain cells that are not controlled by hormones. It’s the same with fracking – only the hormone is called ‘greed’.’

If raw sewage spills into a river, you just need to wait for the next rains to come… ‘… and all that sewage water is kwwwwuuuuussshhhh washed down into the ocean and the fish are happy again and people won’t get sick anymore, and you can go and fix the problem at the sewage works.’

Not so with fracking. Archaic underground water of the kind we’re talking about in the Karoo can take millennia to recharge, so the residue of a spill can linger for millions of years.

‘You can take some corrective measures with a surface spill, like put skimmers into the water or do bioremediation or use suctions or build berms. You can channel off the polluted water or add chlorine.

‘But a spill deep underground, where the water will only pop up 200km away? There’s nothing you can do to fix that. It’s irreversible,’ Carin explains.

f) Referee and player

Who do you trust to make sure everyone plays nicely, when the environment is most at risk? Carin reckons she wouldn’t trust any research by proponents and beneficiaries of the technology because there’s too much vested interest.

‘And since government is investing in advertising the positives about fracking, I would include the government as one of the beneficiaries of fracking and I wouldn’t trust them.’

The problem here is that the mining companies pay the bills for environmental impact assessments (EIAs), and the government is responsible for issuing licensing conditions (as we’ve seen, above, they don’t seem to doing a great job of this in other mining sectors) and for monitoring compliance of those conditions, as well as test for well leaks.

The Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) reported in March that the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) has taken water samples on a farm north of Craddock in the Eastern Cape, to establish ‘base line data’. Once they know what the ‘pristine’ state is of the water flowing through the honeycombs of this aquifer, they’ll be able to see if anything changes in the event of fracking going ahead.

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University will follow up with a five year study, according to the TKAG Carin tells me it should be compulsory that research linked to EIAs should be ‘peer reviewed by independent reviewers who are accepted to the community at large’, meaning reviewed by experts that are not linked to the licence applicants or licence holders.

‘At the moment, the EIA regulations only call for peer review if the department asks for it. And that is why they are of such a poor quality, and why we get such poor licence conditions.’

What’s in a word? - 14 March 2014

An email is doing the rounds today, from the Centre for Environmental Rights (if anyone’s got their eye on the fracking ball, it’s this lot), explaining why removing one simple word from the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development (MPRD) Amendment Bill, which provides for fracking, is such a big deal: by removing the word ‘interested’ from the original wording (‘interested and affected parties’), they can shove the pesky civil society groups from blocking the way towards the department handing out those prospecting rights.

‘(T)he DMR already treats landowners with greater regard than other affected and interested parties, such as downstream communities who may be severely affected by prospecting and mining, or civil society groups concerned for the public interest,’ writes Melissa Fourie of the CER in an email that was circulated to NGOs working in the area.

Last we heard, the Bill had been approved by the National Council of Provinces, which is one further step down the road towards getting signed into law by the president. But apparently this step might not have been sufficiently open to the public, according to the Mail & Guardian, leaving it open to Constitutional challenge.

I also found this cool cartoon by Dr Jack doing the rounds.

The tried and tested way - 18 March 2014

It’s financial year end, people are busy. But a second call to DWA’s Anet Muir turns up the best practices documents she mentioned in her email. They’re in the draft regulations that the DMA is working on.

Where have they been ‘tried and tested’?

‘Norway, the UK, the US, Canada, all over the world, basically,’ says Muir over the phone.

And she promises to drop them into an email because they’re not online.

Wrapping up - 25 March 2014

Time to wrap this puppy up. End-March was always going to be D-Day for close-of-project. I guess it’s fair to say that the various departments have been co-operative in terms of giving us the information we asked for.

But without some experts to help analyse the information, it’s easy to be dazzled and confused.

The DG’s office at the Department of Mineral Resources was not the most efficient They batted things back to the Department of Water Affairs, even though they’re the department responsible for handling the regulations governing the process of drilling fracking wells down into the Karoo.

The DWA ended up giving me information about aspects of fracking that fall in the DMR’s domain. As the PA said, once the final regs are published, they’ll be ready to comment. Let’s hold them to that.

Stern Report author weighs in - 27 March 2014

This story just popped up on my Facebook news feed: Business Day’s Sue Blaine writing that ‘Fracking chemicals will put Karoo water at risk, says UK climate envoy’.

She’s quoting top UK climate analyst, Sir David King, saying that ‘the chemicals used and water contaminated with radioactive particles and chemicals, which pollute groundwater, create too much risk for water-stressed areas.’

Water Affairs reverts once more - 29 March 2014

Anet Muir gets back to me with the ‘tried and tested’ best practices. It’s a formidable document - over a hundred and something page of profoundly technical stuff. You’d need to be a seriously skilled pro to wade through this and pass meaningful commentary.


The lefties’ alternative regulations - 1 April 2014

Turns out the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is already well on top of these ‘best practices’ as they issued a counter-proposal to the DMR’s regulations last December. The gist of it:

  • fracking regs need to comply with all our other existing regs and constitutional requirements (our constitutional right to food and water, to a healthy environment, to information and to just administrative action; the country’s respective environmental, water, waste and air quality acts);
  • the regulations must comply with more than just the best practices of industry-invested institutions, like those of the American Petroleum Institute which the current best practices are tied into;
  • the regs are ‘streamlined’ under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (2002) but need to point to other regulations more explicitly;
  • the CER points out how the two authorities responsible for monitoring and evaluation - the DMR and the DWA - have such a shortage of staff and skills that they’re not equipped to do the job. This points to one of the longstanding criticisms of SA environmental law - that we might have some of the best legislation, internationally, but if you cannot implement the laws, they’re not much use.

Read the CER’s full analysis here.

Water vs Energy: the final wrap-up - 6 April 2014

I am hammering this out in a coffee shop on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Cape Town, the mountain is ironed flat by the noon-day sun and there’s a glass of icy water shedding dewdrops of condensation onto the countertop, next to a cup of steaming black coffee. The story’s far from over:

  • Government is so invested in fracking and is such tjommies (that’s local code for ‘friends’) with industry that the South African public can’t be sure they’re making impartial decisions in our best interest. Government isn’t the owner of that gas - it is merely the custodian. They manage it (how it’s mined, if at all, and what happens to the profits) on our behalf. It is important that we look at some of the deeper criticism of the Department of Energy’s development of the country’s energy policy (the Integrated Resources Plan) to get sense of just how much industry and government are in bed together on matters relating to our energy future.
  • The industry says it’s still crunching the numbers, to see if the Karoo shale has enough gas buried beneath its surface to make the exploration costs worthwhile. But if they decide to go ahead, we know government’s pretty much given them the all clear. From now on it’s just a matter of clearing the paperwork.
  • Civil society organisations and activists remain the thin blue line, trying to make sure government manages our water and energy resources responsibly, in a way that benefits us and keeps the environment healthy, rather than one that puts industry and profits first.
  • Is it really the ‘game changer’ government says it is? It’s not as if this is the only source of energy out there. There’s all that off- and on-shore oil and gas we can ship in from our neighbours - Mozambique, Namibia, Angola. This stuff in the Karoo isn’t anything special, it’s just another bit of gaseous energy that you light with a match.
  • The tech needed to reach the gas is owned and controlled by a few small powerful companies. This keeps it centralised and in the hands of a small elite. It’s also a profit-driven industry. It’s too easy for such a powerful, centralised sector to woo government decision makers about how this resource should be used.
  • Renewable tech democratises and decentralises energy, and makes society more resilient. But as Stephen Law, the boss, points out: you’re not going to get the solar water heating industry lobbying the government in the same way as the oil or nuclear industries, because it’s dominated by thousands of small plumbing operations who are too busy running their businesses and don’t have access to the corridors of power. ‘It’s messy. A bunch of plumbers aren’t going to whisper into the ear of the Minister of Mineral Resources and ask for special favours,’ says Stephen.
  • This notion that government departments have everything under control is a dangerous myth. They might issue all the right documents, and follow the correct democratic processes to put policy in place (they haven’t always, by the way, but that’s another chapter), but this isn’t even as good as the paper it’s written on if government doesn’t have the personnel to implement the policies. As Carin Bosman showed, the departments are horribly short on what the computer industry calls ‘wet-ware’ - people with the skills needed to do the job. Implementation is partly technical capacity, partly political will.

The whole fracking business boils down to this: the shale gas and the water of the Karoo are resources that belong to the South African public. They don’t belong to government. Government is merely hired by us to manage how these resources are used and protected. Ultimately, it’s about energy versus water. Given we have other sources of energy (like abundant sunlight beaming free energy down on us across most of the country almost all year round) but we don’t have an abundant supply of water, you’d think it would be a no-brainer? South Africa is a water scarce, sunny country. Water should trump gas hands down.