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South Africa: Shell fracking in semi-desert Karoo

How do farmers prove that Shell has polluted their lands, what lengths people have to go through to get their rights?

From pages 35, 36 & 37 of “Royal Dutch Shell and its sustainability troubles” – Background report to the Erratum of Shell’s Annual Report 2010

The report is made on behalf of Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands)
Author: Albert ten Kate: May 2011.

Farmers, scientists, NGOs, a Dutch princess, a business tycoon, a long-distance swimmer, a Facebook account with already 6,500 members as of 19 April 2011. Royal Dutch Shell is facing strong opposition to its plans to get an exploration license to seek shale gas in South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo region.

The consulting firm Golder Associates, working on behalf of Shell, drafted an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for three exploration areas, each comprising 30,000 kilometres. Until 5 April 2011, the public was allowed to comment to these plans. The drilling of a maximum of 24 wells was not expected to commence before 2012. Golder stated in its conclusions to the EMPs that there was no material evidence that a small number of exploration wells could result in an unacceptable level of environmental impact, and that therefore the determination of the resource potential of the Karoo shale gas formations not should be prevented or delayed. As long as the siting and management of the wells would be controlled through a rigorous, scientific Environmental Impact Assessment process, it would be unlikely that the construction would result in unacceptable environmental damage, the company continued.

Scientists of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under this administration and at the direction of U.S. Congress, are currently undertaking a study on the practice of hydraulic fracturing to better understand any potential impacts on drinking water and groundwater. The results of this study are not expected before late 2012. Golder stated that there was no need to wait with handing over an exploration license, because Shell’s application did not involve production. Before any licensing of a production well field is considered, the EPA-study should however be considered, according to Golder.

Thousands of comments to the Environmental Management Plan (EMP) of Golder were submitted. The strong public resistance against fracking the Karoo resulted in a moratorium by the government on licenses in the Karoo where fracking is proposed. On Wednesday 20 April 2011, the South African Cabinet endorsed the decision by the Department of Minerals to invoke this moratorium. The Department of Minerals will lead a multi disciplinary team including the Departments of Trade & Industry, Science and Technology, amongst others, to fully research the full implications of the proposed fracking. It was stated that the Cabinet had made it very clear that clean environment together with all the ecological aspects will not be compromised.

The opponents of the exploratory plans are however not re-assured: ? Business tycoon Johann Rupert: “We don’t think the legal framework was designed for this fracking method and we are very, very scared about the irreversibility of the ecological damage, should it occur.” ? Professor Doreen Atkinson of the Centre for Development Support at the University of Free State (UFS): “There is a prima facie case to put a hold on any decisions around fracking until studies have been done. These studies may take at least 3 to 5 years. It would also be prudent to first see the results of the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which has embarked on a study. Its results are only expected in late 2012.”

? Long-distance swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh: “Growing up in Grahamstown I learnt how scarce water is in the Karoo. Why on earth would we allow a foreign company to come and drill for gas in a vulnerable ecosystem? Why would we risk contaminating our water supply? It is morally wrong. It also makes poor economic sense. We must look after our water for future generations.”

? Dr Anthony Turton, a well-known trans-disciplinary water scientist: “In the absence of certainty, it is prudent to assume the worst and respond accordingly. In the case of fracking, there are many unknowns technologically. At best it is chasing a highly marginal resource. Invariably the costs exceed the benefits if one takes potential environmental damage into consideration. But because the benefits are so few, if things go wrong, there is not enough to pay for environmental remediation.”

? Geologist and palaeontologist Professor Bruce Rubidge of the University of Witwatersrand’s Bernard Price Institute: “The fact that companies like Shell are saying that they will use sea- and brack- water for the fracking may have unwelcome effects on the salinity of the groundwater. Also in the fracking process there will undoubtedly be some of this sea and brack water which has been contaminated with chemicals and which will spill out on the surface, as has happened in many recorded cases in America. What will it do to the soil?”

? Ernest Pringle, president of Agri-Eastern Cape and a farmer in the Karoo: “I spent all my time trying to pump up more groundwater to keep going. So we want to know with certainty what the effects will be to the underground water supply.”

? Mark Botha, head of conservation at environmental group WWF South Africa: “We’ve got some serious concerns about fracking, it is as yet an unproven technology with unacceptable risks for fresh water abstraction and pollution.”

? Derek Light, a lawyer representing a number of Karoo land owners: “We are very concerned about the environmental impact, especially because fracking is not regulated in South Africa.”

? Princess Irene of the Netherlands (this sister of the queen owns land in the Karoo): “There are other ways to generate energy, for which we do not exploit nature but cooperate with it. With wind or solar energy nothing gets polluted, nothing gets broken. More companies are recognizing that we are partners of nature. Shell is stuck in its old patterns.”

? At the beginning of April 2011, several scientists and consultants responded to Shell’s application with an extensive 104-page critical review.

Even in the case that the fracking operations by Shell could be performed without compromising a clean environment together with all the ecological aspects, there is still the issue of where Shell would get the massive amounts of water needed. The company has made a commitment “not to compete with the people of the Karoo for their water needs.” One of the options Shell considers is to get water from sea. Shell has also stated it is commuted to provide full compensation to any landowner with evidenced direct negative impact or loss on their land as a result of its activities. This may however seem less re-assuring than it looks like. How do farmers prove that Shell has polluted their lands, what lengths people have to go through to get their rights?

A further extract from the report will be published in the coming days.

THE COMPLETE 73 PAGE REPORT (with reference sources)

This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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