Ecology Responses and critiques

Ivo Vegter vs. the Karoo

Ivo Vegter was rousing.

In a recent article on The Daily Maverick website the well-known local free market ideologue and climate change denialist dutifully performed his well-rehearsed cherry-picking dance of apologist rhetoric in an unsuccessful attempt to ward off the growing grassroots opposition to Shell’s application to prospect for natural gas in the Karoo using hydraulic fracturing. Very roughly, ‘fracking’, as it has become known, is a controversial process where sand, water and a cocktail of dangerous chemicals are shot at high pressure down a deeply drilled hole in the ground to help fracture rocks in order to release shale gas deposits. As made clear in the film Gasland, as well as in the growing body of critical research, there are a number of serious issues with this form of fossil fuel extraction. The Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) are worried about this, although Ivo is certain that they’ve either been misled or are being intentionally misleading.

Beginning by pointing out the ‘Churchillian grand oratory’ of Lewis Pugh’s speech to the TKAG, Ivo proceeds to deliver a tedious array of anti-environmentalist slurs against the dreaded angry and irrational Big Green Lobby, all 4×4 driving yuppies in sandals and hemp trousers (he also described this deluded and sentimentalist bicycle-riding hippie mafia with the Clarksonesque ‘ecomentalist’), seemingly unaware throughout of his own penchant for the hyperbolic. Then again, a little bit of caricature goes a long way; had Ivo chosen to fairly portray his opponents (a courtesy I won’t be extending to him here) as what they are: a loose gathering of reasonably concerned Karoo residents – farmers, retirees, artists, business people and scientists, among others – he would have had to rely on facts alone, and balanced facts are precisely what he is lacking.

Not that his style doesn’t feel like level headed scientific discourse – it’s just that it entirely lacks any credible, robustly examined scientific content, drawing instead upon the intentionally misleading front group propaganda that has been repeatedly outed by groups like the non-profit  public interest journalist organisation ProPublica .

Still, it feels like a point by point refutation is in order. As that could become pretty dull, let’s imagine it as a hypothetical conversation…

Ivo: Shell’s exploration will only require between 7 million and 144 milion litres of water. That’s only 7 000 to 144 000 cubic meters – a negligible drop in the ocean compared to what Medupi will use, or what Eskom as a whole uses!

Aragorn: Whether you’d prefer to use cubic meters, megalitres (as Eskom often does) or cubic furlongs is largely besides the point – the water use and ecological (not to mention social and aesthetic) impact of a couple of exploratory wells is not the core concern. If Shell finds sizeable pockets of exploitable gas deep underground, and if we assume similar well spacing to US averages and access to just a small portion of the 90 000km² of the Karoo they’ve tentatively cordoned off as their hunting ground, they’ll probably want to drill at least a few thousand wells. That’s a lot of water by anyone’s measure, especially in the arid Karoo. There’s also the issue of the hundreds of millions of litres of waste water that would need to be transported, treated (and no adequate treatment methods exist for this chemical cocktail) and stored or ‘disposed of’ (i.e., buried underground), not to mention the emission of countless tons of methane, a powerful climate change gas.

Ivo: Shell are honest guys though. They promise right on their own website that they won’t be competing with the locals for water: if they find gas then they will ‘if necessary…go as far as the sea’ to find water ‘ nobody else wants’. Surely you can trust a big company like Shell to do the right thing?

Aragorn: Well, I don’t see any reason not to trust Shell, especially given their humanitarian operations in Nigeria and Ireland. They really do their best, even under really tough conditions – did you know that those gosh-darned Nigerian savages keep stealing top quality oil directly from Shell’s pipelines without paying for it? Sure, sometimes the oil has leaked out into their villages already, but it’s the principle that counts!

Ivo: That’s just green propaganda. Shell knows it can’t afford to give the public genuine cause for complaints because the legal and regulatory implications would severely threaten its business.

Aragorn: Last I checked, Shell knew exactly how to deal with public complaints. Besides, I thought the kind of transparency and self-optimising for the public good you’re talking about can’t happen in societies that operate so far from free market conditions, Ivo? At least that’s what your fellow anti-state capitalists Milton Friedman and his good friend George Stigler seem to think:

“Regulation and competition are rhetorical friends and deadly enemies: over the doorway of every regulatory agency save two should be carved: ‘Competition Not Admitted.’ The Federal Trade Commission’s doorway should announce , “Competition Admitted in Rear,” and that of the Antitrust Division, ‘Monopoly Only by Appointment.”
– George Stigler, “Can Regulatory Agencies Protect the Consumer?” in The Citizen and the State: Essays on Regulation (1975), at 183:

There’s even a term for this all-too regular occurrence: regulatory capture. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:
“In economics, regulatory capture occurs when a state regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead advances the commercial or special interests that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure, as it can act as an encouragement for large firms to produce negative externalities.”

Us South Africans have our own term for this, by the way: business as usual.

Ivo: Did you see that crummy report “specialist energy attorneys” Haveman [sic] produced for the TKAG? They couldn’t find anything. In their own words, there’s a “real paucity of information” as well as “considerable uncertainty surrounding the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction”. That means we should start drilling, right?

Aragorn: Firstly, what’s with the mysterious scare quotes? Are Havemann not actual attorneys? Do they not actually specialise in energy policy? How deep does the rabbit-hole go, Ivo? And no, a paucity of information and considerable uncertainty do not mean we should start drilling – they’re a call to exercise prudence!

Ivo: Nonsense! What we don’t know can’t come back to toxify our water supplies! Speaking of water toxification, even Josh Fox, the director of Gasland, says that “we don’t know why fracking chemicals and fugitive natural gas are getting into water supplies, we just know that they are.”

Aragorn: I suppose you’re right: the nasty fracking-associated chemicals like arsenic, barium, strontium and several hundred others, including a whole bunch of endocrine disruptors that are getting into people’s water (not to mention the benzene that was discovered in Pennsylvania groundwater at 1 500 times the safe level) can’t be the result of actual fracking. It’s far more likely that carcinogenic mutagens like BE-6, Aldecide G, FDP-S798, and Borate Crosslinker J532 are just hanging around in the environment waiting to seep into groundwater at precisely the same time as the fracking begins.

Given this perfectly coherent explanation I can’t see any reason to apply the precautionary principle until further investigation has taken place. We’re far better off applying the Obama method for ensuring public safety: “Nobody is an environmentalist until you get sick.”

Ivo: Exactly! Also, they interviewed a bunch of objective industry representatives and lobbyists in Gasland and they all said that water contamination from hydraulic fracturing has never been proven…because it’s never been investigated. Even if there is some contamination, it’s probably related to oil or gas drilling activity, not the actual hydraulic fracturing process.”

Aragorn: Oh. I wasn’t aware that you could prove something without investigating it first. Let’s be clear though: hydraulic fracturing refers only to the actual moment of shooting the water, sand and chemicals down the hole, right? So if there’s contamination from the necessary companion processes of drilling, transport, storage and so forth, this is not due to fracking? I guess that makes fracking completely safe then!

Ivo: It has to be safe! Surely there’s no way industry could have gotten away with a process that posed such a threat to human health? Not in a sophisticated and litigious place like the United States!

Aragorn: Litigation works both ways:

“Every rule that we have improved . . . industry has taken us to court on,” said Joanna Prukop, New Mexico’s cabinet secretary for Energy Minerals and Natural Resources. “It’s industry that is fighting us on every front as we try to improve our government enforcement, protection, and compliance… We wear Kevlar these days.”

Ivo: But…look at the testimonies! The Division of Mineral Resources Management of Ohio, the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department(with its 18 inspectors and 99 000 wells to be inspected), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the State Oil and Gas Board of Alabama, The Texas Railroad Commission, Michigan’s Office of Geological Survey, Colorado, Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana, Colorado, South Dakota, Tennessee…See? Worldwide, the precedent for fearing hydraulic fracturing is weak, at best.

Aragorn: Most of your references are from highly fallible, contentious organisations that are in some cases textbook examples of regulatory capture and in all cases subject to the aforementioned litigious nature of big corporations. In at least one case – that of the innocuous sounding Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) – what you’re relying on is little more than the misleading PR of an industry lobby group.

Ivo: But isn’t it strange that not a single member of these organisations has testified, under oath, to any knowledge whatsoever of a single drop of water being contaminated on their watch.

Aragorn: Strange indeed. Almost as strange as the complete lack of confidence citizens and other regulatory bodies in the places you mention have in these organisations.

In Texas, for example, auditors found that nearly half of the state’s wells hadn’t been inspected in the five years between 2001 and 2006 and expressed concerns about objectivity and conflict of interest. It turned out that Railroad Commission employees regularly received gifts from the very companies they were supposed to be inspecting. Inspectors also discovered groundwater contamination at a number of wells.

In Pennsylvania recycled waste water was found to be corroding machinery due to high amounts of Total Dissolved Solids, or TDS, a highly concentrated mixture of salt and other minerals. “Although it rarely makes headlines,” says a report from the Pittsburgh Geological Society, “damage or threats caused by gas migration is a common problem in Western Pennsylvania.”

In Colorado, a recent report concluded that gas drilling had degraded water in dozens of water wells and led to methane contamination. Colorado state records show more than 1 500 spills since 2003. In 2008 alone there were more than 206 spills, with 48 relating to water contamination.

In the experience of Gasland’s director:

“frustration among citizens with their state agencies was very common in my travels, in Colorado, in Pennsylvania, in Texas, and in Arkansas. Citizens pointed out time and time again how they felt their state environmental agencies were not up to the job, or even worse, were in cahoots with the gas companies. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, we were told that Cabot Oil and Gas and DEP reps often walked in together with an air of camaraderie; in Texas, complaints about the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Railroad Commission were rampant. It is indeed part of the thesis of Gasland that state agencies are either overwhelmed or not to be trusted when it comes to gas drilling…Among folks living in gaslands, state agencies are not living up to their responsibilities to protect citizens and are widely suspected of corruption. I also experienced the same frustration with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.”

Ivo: Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says fracking is fine!

Aragorn: Apart from senior EPA employees like whistle-blower Weston Wilson. Wilson was concerned when a saw the published version of a 2004 EPA study that concluded, by omitting a number of findings from the source documents, that hydraulic fracturing posed little or no threat to drinking water supplies. He and several other EPA scientists proceeded to publicly challenge both the study and the impartiality of the (heavily Halliburton-affiliated) review panel.

Even EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe is angry with the frackers.

By the way, you do know about the methane contamination that’s making people’s tap water flammable and blowing up houses, right?

Ivo: All lies! Or if it’s not, the methane is of natural origin…it’s not from the fracking!

Aragorn: That is entirely implausible. Firstly, there are established scientific methods for discerning the origin of the methane that ends up in groundwater and secondly, as hydrogeologist and Pennsylvania Deparment of Environmental Protection lawyer Judith Jordan puts it:

“It is highly unlikely that methane would have migrated through natural faults and fractures and coincidentally arrived in domestic wells at the same time oil and gas development started, after having been down there … for over 65 million years.”

While we’re on the subject of things that have been lurking deep underground for millions of years, did you hear about the radium-226 in New York? Nothing serious, apart from the fact that the Department of Environmental Conservation recently analysed samples of waste water that had been brought to the surface from drilling and found radium-226 – a powerful carcinogen – at thousands of times above human safety levels.

Ivo: Pah! You and your friends in the Big Green Lobby are still hypocrites: you’re all for drilling for carbon sequestration and geothermal energy, so how can you be against drilling for gas? Drilling a hole is drilling a hole is drilling a hole….

Aragorn: We’re even against digging holes for composting toilets! Seriously though, we’re not against all drilling, Ivo, we’re against the specific processes involved in fracking, with their unique sets of risks. Out of interest, carbon sequestration is seen as pretty controversial within the environmental momement.

What we are against is modern hydraulic fracturing, with its multiple horizontal shafts from a single well. You claim it’s more environmentally friendly than traditional fracking but it uses more water than other methods and comes with all the specific risks I’ve already exhaustively listed.

Ivo: What do you lentil eating Earth Liberation Front ideologues want anyway? Zero-impact? That’s nonsensical!

Aragorn: No. What groups like the TKAG want is sensible, sustainable practice in line with ecological science. To call them merely ideological is similarly misleading: sure, there’s an ideological basis to their position. There’s a very specific ideology underpinning everything you say too; we all have our subjective values and ideological preferences, whether they cause us to lean towards development at all costs or the preservation of the integrity and beauty of the natural world. What matters are the implications of those ideologies and that’s precisely what commentators like the TKAG and Andreas Spath, whose values you deride as ideological ‘clean green waffle’, are discussing.

Ivo: Oh, if only we lived in Free Market Land, then the unsustainable nature of one energy provision practice would magically result in the instantaneous blossoming of a competing wind or wave or solar outfit, perhaps even putting Shell out of business!

Aragorn: Sorry Ivo, I can’t type while holding my head in my hands.

Ivo: Admit it, evil lobby groups like the TKAG have a preconceived goal, so they think it’s okay to lie about the impact of hydraulic fracturing. The end justifies the means, and they can only rouse sufficient objection if people are terrified of the consequences of this nasty-sounding process, ominously called “fracking the Karoo”.

Aragorn: Where are the lies? Simply because the TKAG is operating with different concerns and data to the industry propaganda you’re reading, it’s fair to call them liars? Also, you seem to imply that there’s something wrong with being a lobby group. I thought a lobby group was any collection of people who have similar views on things that they feel need to be changed. Admittedly your use of the term might be completely innocuous, but when you couple it with accusations that the concerned citizens of the Karoo are creating terror in the minds of ‘common people’ with their ominous depictions of fracking, it seems very much like you’re employing the exact same misleading rhetoric you accuse them of.

Ivo: Don’t you see? The TKAG aren’t harmless greenies, concerned only with pretty pictures of pristine landscapes and protecting endangered fluffy bunnies. They’re the self-indulgent bourgeoisie, living in the idealised eco-luxury most of us cannot afford. Us ordinary people need fossil fuels! We need cheap energy to mitigate the impacts of rising food and transport price! We need jobs! How dare an entitled group of smug sophisticates condemn the masses to a life of poverty with their lies about gas drilling! They’re denying people their basic right to benefit from economic development.

Aragorn: Goodness, that is quite a parade of horribles! It might also be just a little bit of a false dilemma. Are you sure that without Shell fracking up the Karoo there’s no way to create jobs? That there’s no way to work towards sustainable development without increasingly the production and use of fossil fuels? Should we blindly accept every single proposal just because someone pulls the job card at the right moment? This talk of basic rights and common people seems like little more than a convenient (and tired) bit of spin, especially given how poorly it fits with the Social Darwinism of your usual extreme libertarianism.

The TKAG are crucially concerned with human rights: the rights of communities in the area not to have their health affected by reckless natural resource exploitation, the rights of future generations (e.g., their own children) to sustainable industry and a clean environment, the rights of the thousands of species of flora and fauna that are potentially threatened by massive developments in the Karoo…They’re simply calling for a bit of temperance in order to best ensure that these rights can continue to be upheld in the future.

Finally, in case this isn’t yet clear enough, the people expressing concern are regular people. In fact I’m willing to bet they’re very similar in composition to the group of ordinary South Africans I helped interview last year, who fought against and successfully stopped nickel mining prospectors from polluting the Groot Marico area. I might be ill-versed in spotting deranged ecomentalists though, so you’re more than welcome to watch this short video about the Marico struggle and point out the Green Nazis to me.

Ivo: Just the exploration phase of this project is said to be worth over a billion rand. This will create employment, raise GDP, increase tax income, and stimulate a great deal of secondary economic activity. Who knows how much wealth and employment might be created if the exploration proves successful, and the gas proves to be abundant?

Aragorn: How much would growing solar and wind industries be worth? How many jobs would they create? South Africa is already a world leader in solar technology. Why is our future planning, unlike that of Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and others, so heavily biased towards nuclear, coal and natural gas? It seems to have very little to do with a desire for economic stimulation and much more to do with vested interests and corporate leverage over government forces.

Ivo: But gas is cleaner than coal and it’s the only path to low cost energy in the immediate future.

Aragorn: Mixed renewables solutions are comparable in cost to the mixed fossil fuel solution gas forms a part of. Besides, the latest research out of Cornell University indicates that once we factor in the full lifecycle impact of gas production – including all the methane emissions – it is equivalent to coal in terms of ecological impact. If you’re a climate change denialist I suppose potent greenhouse gasses like methane don’t really matter though.

Ivo: I don’t believe a word you’ve said. It’s all spin! We keep hearing how Big Oil lobbyists are evil spinmeisters and insidious manipulators of public opinion. Don’t forget that Big Green lobbyists can deceive the public with the best of them

Aragorn: The Big Green Lobby? Is that like The Gay Lobby or the Pinko Commie Lobby? By day, mild-mannered farmers, by night, high-powered, billionaire-funded manipulators of public opinion!


Throughout his predictable attack on a group that is little more than a loose network of concerned residents and admirers of the Karoo, Ivo uses every rhetorical trick in the book to paint them as a fringe minority, as irrational sentimentalists or entitled yuppies. This is the same tactic employed by the spin doctors who want us to believe that there’s nothing wrong with nuclear energy, that GM foods are perfectly safe, and that there’s no scientific consensus behind the by now near-universal understanding that our industrial activities, our very way of life, is altering the climactic balance of the entire planet.

If these paid professionals (ostensibly unpaid ‘altruists’ in Ivo’s case) are able to make us feel small and confused, as if we’re a tiny, out of touch minority who don’t represent the hopes and aspirations of regular people, they can keep us silent and divided.

I’m guessing however that most of us, even if we’re not always very vocal about it, will agree that the opposite is true – that those of us who are beginning to recognise the dire consequences of life out of balance, of unhinged science and a developmental economics detached from reality, of progress for its own sake and only ever of a single kind, now represent the bulk of opinion.

If so, then it might be that it is in fact people like Ivo, with their dogmatic reductionist ideologies and their strong confirmation bias – their remarkable ability to collect and interpret ‘evidence’ in a such a contrived fashion that they can even convince themselves that anthropogenic climate change isn’t real – who are the irrational minority. In other words, perhaps it is the people who regard the Cato Institute as reliable source of objective analysis and who never tire of construing the sensible, scientifically grounded concerns of regular, everyday people as fringe fanaticism who have themselves become the fringe.

Throughout this article I have been using words like ‘reasonable’, ‘sensible’ and so forth in an opposite but equal way to how Ivo and his ilk employ them. I’d like to close with one more thought, however, that may strike almost everyone as unreasonable:

“MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) has said to the oil industry: “It must be clear that the Nigerian government cannot protect your workers or assets. Leave our land while you can or die in it.” There is more courage, integrity, intelligence, and pragmatism in that statement from MEND than in any statement I have ever read by any American environmentalist, including myself. We need to accept the fact that making this type of statement (and being prepared to act on it) might be necessary to preserve a living planet.
Some people may be willing to give up on life on this planet without resisting. I’m not one of them.”Derrick Jensen

Or maybe it isn’t all that unreasonable after all; as Lewis Pugh said in his speech, this is about our children’s future, and that of our children’s children.


Update: You can read an even more thorough debunking of Mr Vegter’s droolings here.


Further reading: