In Arid South African Lands, Fracking Controversy Emerges

The contentious practice of hydrofracking to extract underground natural gas has now made its way to South Africa’s Karoo, a semi-desert known for its stark beauty and indigenous plants. But opposition is growing amid concern that fracking will deplete and pollute the area’s scarce water supplies.

On a cool day in May, Jonathan Deal, the 52-year-old owner of an ecotourism farm called Gecko Rock, strikes up a steep kopje at a pace most people maintain going downhill. As he leads a few visitors on an all-day hike across his 10,000-acre property in the South African bush, he steps onto boulders covered in red lichen and points out — in Latin, Afrikaans, and English — the species of the indigenous flora called fynbos, whose flowers and shoots color this vast semi-desert of the Karoo.

Deal is obviously in his element. But it’s also apparent that he is more full of zeal than joy, his mood betrayed by his preoccupied gaze.

“Look at this,” he says, fingering a hundred-year-old creeping aloe thriving on the hillside. “Once this is gone, it cannot be replaced. They say they’ll leave it all better than they found it. How is that possible? I tell you, it is not possible.”

“They” are a group of global energy companies — including Royal Dutch Shell, South Africa’s SASOL, and others — that have leased rights to an immense shale field that runs across the country’s midsection. The companies have promised billions in revenue, much-needed jobs, and energy security for all.

South Africa has placed a moratorium on future fracking permits until the environmental impacts can be evaluated.

But the issue here — as in similar natural gas-rich shale fields in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere — is largely over how the gas is harvested, namely a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which uses acombination of water, sand, and chemicals to crack the subterranean rock where gas (and oil) are trapped. And as intensifying publicity about the environmental risks of fracking has spread from the United States to South Africa, opposition to hydrofracturing in the Karoo has grown, prompting the South African government to place a moratorium on all future fracking permits until the practice’s environmental impacts can be evaluated.

The controversy has put the government in a tough spot. Seventeen years after the end of apartheid, the African National Congress-led government is under pressure to deliver jobs, services, and greater prosperity to the country’s largely impoverished and increasingly impatient population. The sparsely populated, semi-desert Karoo has a mixed-ethnic population of 300,000, including native Khoisan people, other black Africans, and white farmers. Many of the region’s residents live in squalid settlements that are a remnant of the apartheid era, and the government clearly hoped that a hydrofracturing boom would bring jobs and greater prosperity to the region.

Opposition to fracking in the Karoo has been centered not in the black settlements, but more among the white farmers and landowners who fear that the industry will pollute and deplete already scarce water supplies in this rain-starved region. Each fracking drilling well requires millions of liters of water and produces large quantities of tainted wastewater that must be treated.

Karoo Landscape South Africa
Photo courtesy of Todd Pitock
The semi-desert Karoo is known for its variety of endemic flora and fauna, including succulent plants and small reptiles.

In February, Deal, along with an environmentalist named Lewis Pugh, formed Treasure the Karoo Action Group, or TKAG, to organize opposition. The two men say they have spent a combined $60,000 of their own money, plus another $26,000 raised in small donations. Pugh, whose mother’s family first came to the Karoo almost 200 years ago, is a well-known figure here who has drawn attention to water-related issues by swimming in extreme environments wearing just a Speedo, cap, and goggles.

“‘Karoo’ comes from a Khoisan word for ‘thirsty land’,” Pugh told me in Cape Town. “Even if the chemicals were safe, and they are not, there just isn’t enough water to spare. Water is going to be a source of conflict. Do you think the Karoo farmers are going to let Shell show up and destroy their farms? They’re going to grab their rifles.”

Shell and other oil and gas companies say that hydrofracturing can be done in an environmentally safe way, and would bring jobs and lease income to the people of the Karoo. But Pugh and other opponents counter that the wells will produce for as few as five years, so the jobs and the benefits will be temporary. The damage, however, will be permanent, says Pugh, including the infrastructure required to retrieve the gas and the heavy trucks and equipment that will rumble through, turning parts of one of the planet’s most pristine and biodiverse environments into an industrial zone.

Interest in natural gas fracking in the Karoo is, as in many other places, a relatively new phenomenon, in large part because new horizontal drilling technology enables gas companies to drill a single well and exploit gas reserves for many miles to the side. In the Karoo, industry officials argue that there is no risk to water and the environmental impact, above or below the surface, will be minimal. The natural gas they’re harvesting, they say, is at an average depth of 2,500 meters — 2,000 meters below the deepest aquifers. The companies say their drill bits, the size of a coffee table, run through a poured concrete funnel within stainless steel casing, forming an impermeable barrier. Because of horizontal drilling, Shell says it intends to drill only 8 to 24 wells over a 35,000-square-mile area.

‘How will these companies be made accountable for the damages they might do?’ asked one farmer.

South Africa divides land ownership between surface and subsurface rights. The “split estate” means that farmers and homeowners own the land they can see, while rights to any minerals or resources that lie below are the government’s to exploit. The fact that Karoo farmers and landowners do not stand to directly earn royalties, as they would in many parts of the U.S., is one reason residents in the Karoo are more resistant to fracking.

TKAG, with a handful of core leaders and about 100 volunteers, has emerged as the main opposition group to fracking in the Karoo. Greenpeace is active, too. Another group,
Earthlife Africa — a volunteer-based civil society organization — has called for a boycott of Shell. Muna Lakhani, 54, the volunteer branch coordinator in Cape Town for Earthlife Africa, criticized Shell for ignoring the interests of the Karoo’s black residents, significantly overstating fracking’s economic benefits while underplaying the environmental impacts.

“The bottom line is that the poor people in the Karoo have not been engaged by the Shell environmental management plan,” said Lakhani. “Some of them are living right on the edge, very precariously, and of course they don’t have everything they should have. One of the most precious resources is water. They don’t have the resources or the capacity to fight in court or to truck in water as wealthy people can. Shell has made it clear they’ll only consider compensation if it can be proved that the contamination came from their wells. Think of someone poor. How on Earth will they be able get justice?”

The more prosperous white farmers in the Karoo also worry about water contamination and water shortages that could be caused by fracking. In June, a delegation of Karoo farmers visited Pennsylvania and New York, where gas fracking in the Marcellus Shale is intensifying. The visit seemed to do little to allay their fears, according to a report in the Huffington Post.

After listening to a representative from a landowner group that supports fracking, Karoo farmer Doug Stern reportedly said, “He speaks so glibly about the acreage he represents and how safe everything is. But how will these companies be made accountable for the damages they might do?”

The worry is that the Karoo will become the arid twin to another drilling center, the Niger delta.

In his speeches opposing fracking in the Karoo, Pugh — whose supporters include Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu — reminds listeners that South Africans had died for inalienable rights enshrined in the country’s 1994 Constitution, including access to clean water and a healthy environment. Fracking in the Karoo threatens those rights, said Pugh.

In May, a Shell official and Deal debated at the University of Cape Town’s School of Business. Bonang Mohale, chairman and vice president of Shell South Africa Marketing (Pty) Limited, argued that Shell had been fracking for 60 years and had not had a single incident at any of its 800,000 wells. “We use between three and eight chemicals per well, and never more than eight,” he later told me. “They’re all 100 percent biodegradable.”

If the claim was surprising — until late June, the makers of fracking chemicals in the U.S. had refused even to disclose the chemicals, saying they were proprietary secrets — his message was nonetheless a promise of hope: jobs and prosperity for a region where economic opportunity has dried up. He extolled Shell’s 109-year record in South Africa, saying it employs 1,400 people directly and has created 20,000 related jobs. At its facility in Durban, which it operates as a joint venture with BP, it produces 180,000 barrels of oil per day, and it was the first international oil company in South Africa to attain the government’s highest rating on affirmative action, Mohale said.

The need for development is undeniable. The failure to deliver services is the African National Congress’s Achilles heel. The government has increased access to water and electrification, but it hasn’t managed to seriously dent the intractable poverty.

One of TKAG’s weaknesses is that while it is clear what the group opposes, it lacks an alternative vision for development. “The Karoo is just fine as it is, thank you,” Mark Van Tubbergh, a TKAG loyalist from Cape Town told me. But that’s debatable. The only people making money in the Karoo are a relative handful of landowners who have turned their properties into hunting lodges. The farmers are either relatively affluent people like Deal, whose property is a second home, or poor people just getting by.

En route to the beauty so beloved by environmentalists, you see passels of men braving windswept plains as they peddle boxes of fruit they’ve taken from fields. They are the ones who will doubtless suffer most acutely from water contamination or water shortages. But even as they live at the epicenter and stand to lose the most, they’re barely in the discussion.

The worry is that the Karoo will become the arid twin to another drilling center, the Niger Delta in Nigeria — where local people have largely remained destitute as foreign oil companies have contaminated the land and the water. “You can’t put energy security ahead of water security,” Pugh said. “Water is life. There is nothing without it.”

Correction, August 4, 2011: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the South African firm, Sasol Ltd., as a state-owned company.