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Gas Wars: Rise of the Anti-Frackers

By Julienne du Toit

South African anti-fracking groups had an extra Easter egg in their baskets this week when the government announced a moratorium on Big Energy plans to prospect for gas in the Karoo, the country’s semi-desert heartland.

What? People Power takes on a tag team of fuel giants and local politicians and wins the 1st round of the southern African Gas Wars? Can it be?

Damn straight. Life retains its ability to surprise and delight.

I came across an article recently with the headline: “5 Reasons to Be Hopeful We Haven’t Totally Screwed Ourselves and the Planet … Yet”.

One of the 5 reasons the author Tara Lohan (AlterNet) gave was the rapid rise of anti-fracking groups around the world. She wrote:

“Momentum ignited from the film Gasland and grassroots activism around the issue has helped to spark a ban on fracking in Pittsburg and a temporary moratorium in New York. Groups like Food and Water Watch, Democracy for America, Water Defense, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, Earth Justice and others are putting the heat on the drilling industry and any politicians dumb enough to have their backs.”

Oil spills, meltdowns and blow-outs

Feeding this environmental uprising was a global energy industry in the throes of an annus horribilis, starting with BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Then early in 2011, Japan’s tsunami hit and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant headed for scary meltdown. Every country that had been planning for more nuclear plants (South Africa included) was suddenly forced into rethink mode.

The latest disaster was Chesapeake Energy’s fracking well blowout in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, with thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water spewing over agricultural fields and spilling into a nearby steam in late April 2011.

It came three days before the South African cabinet endorsed a moratorium on fracking in the country. There’s no doubt it must have caused much agitation in the boardrooms of Royal Dutch Shell (which has been mercilessly vilified in the media for its proposals to frack 90 000 square kilometres of the South African heartland), Sunset Energy, Falcon Oil & Gas, Sasol, Chesapeake Energy, Statoil ASA, Anglo American and others who were lining up to frack the country’s deep shale layers.

Shell and other corporates with plans to frack in South Africa must be cursing the timing. If they had unveiled their plans only five years ago, they might have succeeded. Shale gas had a squeaky clean image until the end of 2008, when a worker in Colorado soaked in fracking fluid was taken to hospital and the nurse treating him nearly died of organ failure.

It’s gone downhill since then for the frackers. Alongside the shocking documentary Gasland, there has been a steady and growing stream of cautionary tales coming out of America – blowouts, leaks, exploding houses, radioactive fracking wastewater released into major rivers, lives ruined, properties turned worthless. Even earthquakes in Arkansas.

Shell executives were made to look like shameless liars every time they said fracking was safe.

Treasure the Karoo Action Group

One of the latest anti-fracking groups is South African. Called Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), it sprang rapidly out of a Facebook page started at the end of January 2011. By Easter, when the South African cabinet announced it was endorsing the moratorium proposed by the Department of Mineral Resources, there were nearly 7 000 members. And every single one of those members, plus thousands of others, did something to spread the word against fracking.

The effort was fascinating for its sheer democratic voice and scale. Thousands signed petitions. Even though many knew that petitions don’t really work, people wanted to sign them anyway. It was like warriors signing up for battle.

The people spoke – and were heard.

In some ways, the central effort among anti-frackers recalls that adage that arose from the political prisoners on Robben Island: Each one teach one.

The key to battling against fracking lies in information. Those who are pro-fracking are usually those who don’t know enough or who have vested interests. So the most effective means of battle was to inform friends, family and whoever would listen about what fracking could mean to South Africa in general and the Karoo in particular.

Schoolteachers, priests and farmers’ wives screened Gasland and Split Estates. Local environmental groups debated the issue around drinks. Some people drew anti-fracking cartoons. Some posted ideas over the Facebook. Some wrote articles or letters in the newspapers. Some wrote letter after letter to Ministers and Shell executives in The Hague.

Some mobilised whoever they knew in government and sent them information on the risks of fracking. Advertising schools designed anti-fracking logos and t-shirts.

Ordinary people did in-depth research and came to Shell information meetings armed with questions the guys in suits couldn’t answer.

A triumph for shit-stirring

Musicians composed anti-fracking songs. Graphic artists created flyers people could hand out. Lawyers got involved. Futurists offered their services. The word ‘fracking’ became a trending subject on Twitter.

Dozens of existing organisations stepped up to the plate – Earthlife Africa stood side by side with WWF, riverine bunny huggers and birders fought alongside farmworkers and wildlife conservationists. Environmental law became a subject of fascination to rich and poor.

When the ‘human polar bear’ and environmental campaigner Lewis Pugh made his stirring anti-fracking speech in Cape Town, it was sent and resent around the world, posted and reposted on Facebook.

As writer Rian Malan remarked on Facebook after the moratorium was announced: “This is a triumph for shit-stirring. There is a lesson here for all of us.”

A fierce love for the Karoo

But there was another factor that corporates could not have foreseen: people’s love for the Karoo.

In the last five to ten years, several books have been written on the Karoo (one was Timeless Karoo, written by Jonathan Deal, head of TKAG). The Karoo has ceased to be a hot place that must be driven through at top speed.

It is now attracting tourists charmed by the authenticity and integrity of the people and their landscapes, the soaring peace, the silence, the far horizons.

This fierce undercurrent of passion for the Karoo must surely have caught Shell off guard. And it showed at the public participation meetings.

Shell executives answering irate questions from the floor seemed bewildered and eventually sullen when confronted with a steadfastly negative reception.

It’s entirely possible they thought the Karoo was a large wasteland, and South Africans would be only too delighted to have the place put to good use.

The war isn’t over

But there’s another cautionary tale in this.

We’re still right at the beginning of the battle, which could last for twenty years or more. The South Africa government needs to decide on an energy policy to take the country forward.

Now the anti-frackers have to feed into a whole new stream of thinking around the kinds of energy sources we would be happy to leave to our children.

How can we produce energy that provides most jobs and harms our natural resources the least?

We need alternatives, ones that provide steady power. If not fracking and gas, if not nuclear, if not coal, then what?


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