Pictures by Chris Marais
Falcon Part II: Jansenville 7 February 2015, Saturday lunchtime
So too Elna de Beer of SRK Consulting who must have hoped that this time, people would refrain from talk about fracking.
But as Kendrew farmer Chris Hobson pointed out “Trying to separate exploration from fracking is like separating pregnancy from birth. It’s impossible. The one leads to the other.”
Aberdeen’s Falcon meeting had been in a hall on the main road.
By contrast, Jansenville’s meeting was in the Merino Hall was down a tiny sidestreet just before Heydenrych’s supermarket.
Cars and bakkies were lined up all along the narrow lane outside the hall, clogging up people’s grassy pavements with cars. The shady spots were gone first.
There were about 60 or 70 chairs available, but more and more people kept arriving after proceedings had started, dozens of them in Democratic Alliance blue t-shirts.
All attendees had to cross the Jiu-Jitsu mat near the front.
Two standing fans kept the air moving, but they became less effective as the mass of people grew.
People started fanning themselves with Falcon’s Environmental Management Programme Executive Summary, prepared by SRK.
In the end, there were people sitting on the floor, on metal tables at the back or standing.
Falcon and SRK had come to speak of their plans to do seismic testing – planting a kilogram of dynamite every 50 metres over 1000 km of southern Karoo over a route that had yet to be finalised.
Farmers and townspeople were there to oppose any plans for exploration that could end in fracking.
Hard Jansenville, Soft Mohair
First the context.
Jansenville may look like a scrappy little Karoo town. Yet some of the world’s top fashion designers, weavers and trend forecasters have visited it.
They came for one reason: More than half the world’s finest mohair comes from the Angora goats raised on farms around here. The eastern Karoo vegetation and dry climate is perfectly suited to them.
This is the epicentre of the South Africa’s mohair industry, worth millions in foreign revenue and supporting thousands of local jobs.
The Karoo’s mohair has a high international profile.
Some of the fine locks shorn from Angora kids and goats in this part of the eastern Karoo are eventually turned into Camdeboo Mohair blazers sold by Alfred Dunhill in London.
Michelle Obama wore a Camdeboo Mohair cardigan (woven in Japan) at her husband’s inauguration.
Actors like Jude Law and Helen Mirren have been photographed emerging from airplanes wearing mohair clothing – perfect for travel because the fibre is light, warm and crease-resistant.
And as with almost everything in the Karoo, it is an industry that depends completely on underground water.
Where is Chevron?
In the Mohair Hall, after Elna de Beer’s House Rules, Philip O’Quigley introduced his company as he had in Aberdeen the day before:
“Falcon Oil & Gas is a company listed on London, Toronto and Dublin stock exchanges, with headquarters in Ireland and an office in Budapest. We are an oil and gas exploration company focused on unconventional energy sources….
“We acquire concessions and later we bring in partners with depth of operational capabilities, and that is our intention when and if we get an exploration licence here in South Africa.”
After O’Quigley had run through the PowerPoint presentation on his firm and the fracking timeline associated with their Australian concession in the remote Beetaloo Basin, Graaff-Reinet lawyer Derek Light raised his hand.
Light represents hundreds of Karoo landowners who oppose fracking.
His first questions went to Chevron’s role in all of this. It was clear that Falcon did not particularly want to hold on the exploration licence it was currently seeking.
“There is nothing to stop me from selling the exploration licence on,” explained O’Quigley. “I can decide to sell it the day after I get it, if I want.
“I did a deal with Chevron to bring them in to work alongside us. They have an option to come in and if they do, they will handle operations in the Karoo.”
Members of the audience were disbelieving. If Chevron would be doing the sharp end of the exploration, where were they?
Hands were shooting up. Everyone was clearly unhappy about who would handle complaints and be liable for things going wrong.
Falcon’s Capacity, Chevron’s Invisibility
“We saw this kind of thing in the US, and it was a disaster,” said farmer Dougie Stern, who had also been at the Aberdeen meeting the day before.
“The company doing the operations on the ground would say they know nothing about any deal you’ve made with the other company to keep away from sensitive areas, and then they just drill where they please. You can do nothing to stop them.”
O’Quigley replied: “If Chevron elect to come in, they will be operationally liable and responsible. They will be accountable to me. We have a joint operations agreement.”
Light: “I am concerned about Falcon’s capacity. Your business plan involves bringing in large companies with expertise and finance. Your lack of compliance with the EMPr regulations does not inspire confidence. You don’t have the capacity to see this through.”
O’Quigley: “This is how I run this company and we do have capacity. We have operations in Australia and in Hungary. We are not seeking to acquire a production licence here. That might be taken up later by Falcon, Chevron, a combination, or another company. There are many hurdles and billions of rands before that happens.”
Light: “So you want to add value and then sell on the rights to someone else. I put it to you that you don’t have the capacity to see this through.”
O’Quigley: “I have told you so many times, I choose to bring in partners as part of my business model.”
Light: “This makes the whole process questionable. This whole process is flawed, and you will just walk away.”
O’Quigley (stiffly): “If you put your comments in writing, they will be on record.”
Light: “You think it’s preferable not to deal with this here?”
O’Quigley: “I will follow the letter of the law. I will give that undertaking.”
Exploration Licence and Fracking
The meeting did not get any easier for O’Quigley. He was quizzed on whether the ANC ruling party had shares in Falcon, as it did in fellow shale gas explorers Shell.
He was also queried on his business sense and ethics.
“You say there is only a 10 to 15% chance of success at making shale gas mining viable here. Why stuff up the Karoo just for that? Does it make any kind of financial sense?” asked one man.
O’Quigley replied: “Ours is a portfolio approach. We have more than one asset in our portfolio. I must repeat we are not seeking a production licence. There will be other meetings before we start fracking, if we do so.”
Light: “You talk about other meetings in the future where fracking might be discussed. But actually this is THE most important meeting. This is about deciding whether you get a licence or not. After obtaining an exploration licence you can change things. Your treatment of the process is superficial and incorrect.”
Explosions, Rabbits and Farmers
By now people were starting to talk behind their hands. Does Falcon have no money?
Fransie Fourie of the Jansenville Farmers Association hobbled to his feet with his leg injury and a long list of remarks and questions. Among them:
“I question SRK’s integrity. SRK is paid by Falcon, therefore they buy SRK’s loyalty.
“Also the size of the area where you want to explore is not decided, nor is the route. How can we comment?”
“The Karoo is an area of great biodiversity. So rich that it has Centres of Endemism full of threatened plants. This is a sensitive area.
“You say the seismic testing would move along at 10km a day. But there’s not a chance you can do all that and then clean up afterwards. You won’t get anywhere near it.
“Also, you say you will do baseline studies. That should have been done first.”
An academic studying the political economy in the Eastern Cape’s fracking zone was heard to murmur: “I had no idea how procedurally weak this process actually is.”
A question was raised about the effect of underground explosions on burrowing creatures like aardvarks, aardwolfs, porcupines, meerkats, ground squirrels and in particular the critically endangered riverine rabbit.
Danelle Fourie of SRK said they had recommended Falcon stay away from known riverine rabbit habitat.
Farmer Sidney Lee stood up to say: “We have been farming here for generations. Every year it is harder. We are confronted with one thing after the next. Please consider that the Karoo farmer might be as endangered as the riverine rabbit.”
“Falcon, Back Off Now”
Dougie Stern asked Danelle Fourie of SRK: “You are making assumptions and recommending mitigation and actions after a desktop study from Cape Town?”
Danelle Fourie: “Yes: We use literature and studies that are available. There were no field studies done.”
Dougie: “So you have done no homework. You had four years to study the impact this exploration would have on livestock. Yet you are coming to us and asking us for information about sensitive ecosystems here.”
Toetie Dow, who represents the San people in the Eastern Karoo, said:
“We as San people reject this fracking. We are worried that these people damage our heritage on the land, and we want to stand by the farmers to protect it. We can work together on this.”
Dougie Stern responded immediately to Dow:
“That is music to my ears!
“I have the mandate to represent 3 000 farmers in the Eastern Cape.
“SRK, you were expected to give us the lowdown on what you planned to do. Instead, you give us this wishy washy presentation.
“You want to dig 20 000 holes to explode dynamite. There is no way we will accept this. We will not grant permission so you can turn this into an industrial wasteland.
“So we are saying to you: Do the honourable thing. Back off now. Don’t waste our time.
“Do a proper study and come back if you really want a meaningful discussion.
“In the meantime we are opposing your application.”
- Falcon and SRK then packed up their three vehicle convoy and headed off to face the angry people of Rietbron, Beaufort West and Cape Town.