Words by Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris MaraisWhile they wait for Government to issue their exploration permit to explore and frack for shale gas in the Karoo, Shell spin-doctors have embarked on a relentless quest to meet with tourism bodies, farmers, retailers, church groups, municipalities and community organisations.
Anyone who will listen, really.
For a start, there was the unusual sight of a man in animal skins crouched by the door, wielding a set of kudu horns with a metal attachment from which wisps of buchu smoke emerged.
Inside, there were other Khoi people in full regalia, sitting among the farmers and members of the anti-fracking organisation, Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG). If Shell’s Niall Kramer, Bob Govender and Gheneez Munian felt uncomfortable surrounded by farming implements – the very industry that their activities threaten – they hid it well.
The gathering had come about because Shell had contacted farmer Johann Minnaar of Groenvlei farm near Nieu Bethesda, requesting a meeting.
Johann is father of Jolynn Minnaar, who will be releasing her documentary on fracking in South Africa in the next few months. Minnaar told them he had no wish to meet them alone and said they should rather address all the farmers. The farmers chose the venue and brought the snacks (supplied by Spar).
It was never going to go well for Shell.
They’d been told to ditch their usual soporific Powerpoint presentation, so Niall Kramer stood in front of a shiny new Massey Ferguson tractor and talked off the cuff. During the presentation and after questions, the various Shell people said:
- The oil and gas company said they would only be using up 1% of their 90 000 square kilometre concession for frack pads (although nothing was said of how much space access roads, pipelines and compressor stations might take up);
- They still didn’t have an exploration licence, but as soon as they did, a process of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) would start and last several years, involving consultants and public participation;
- After the EIA process, between six and 24 exploration wells would be dug over a period of nine years, and exploratory hydraulic fracturing would be done to determine flow rates if promising core samples were retrieved from the deep shale;
- There would be no permanent jobs on offer during this period;
- They did not yet want to start training South Africans in the fracking industry because they were ‘cognisant there might not be any gas’;
- They would disclose the chemicals in the fracking fluid for each individual well (but did not specify to whom);
- They would refrain from using the BTEX group of chemicals in their fracking fluid mixes (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylene and Xylene, which have been used in shale gas wells in the US, are acknowledged to be severely harmful to human health, even in tiny quantities);
- Exploratory fracking would use up to 2 million litres of water each time;
- Only during exploration, when it had been established if and where there was gas, would a decision be made on where to source water for the development phase. Options included municipal wastewater, seawater by truck or rail, or briny water from the deep Karoo rock layers;
Daantjie Japhta, former mayor of Graaff-Reinet, present head of the Khoi’s Inqua clan and Vice-Chairman of Treasure the Karoo Action Group, stood up in his full regalia and gave the Shell people hell.
“We as Khoi are the first people of this land, and in June this year we took the decision that there would be no fracking here. We don’t accept this fracking. You will get a big No from us as Khoi people to fracking. You never even consulted us. We will organise and mobilise. We will ask to go before the United Nations, because this oil and gas business means we will never see our land again.”
He received a huge round of applause from the crowd.
Pastor Barry Wuganaale, who took over as Chairman of TKAG from Jonathan Deal this year, said he found Shell’s message and rhetoric uncannily similar to their rhetoric in Nigeria.
Kramer hotly denied this, saying that the population density, the nature of the product and law enforcement issues made this completely different.
“We want to make this a benchmark project,” said Kramer.
A farmer stood up and said he was still waiting for the answer to a question he had first asked at Shell’s very first meeting in Graaff-Reinet: “Would Shell put up four billion dollars upfront to pay for any damages they might cause?”
Gheneez Munian answered carefully that South Africa’s legislation demanded that they put up a guarantee which would be evaluated during the EIA process and quantified by regulatory formula. Shell will comply with Government’s regulations, she said.
There was a low but audible groan from the crowd.
Jonathan Deal, founder of TKAG, challenged Shell on its insistence that the Econometrix study they had commissioned was realistic on its projections for jobs and income that would be created by shale gas mining.
“We are about to release a peer-reviewed study showing that the modelling was incorrect. Tony Twine’s results did not factor in jobs lost in agriculture and tourism and income lost from pollution and health problems caused by fracking.”
As the meeting went on, Shell’s answers became terser. They dodged Jolynn Minnaar’s questions about whether any part of the fracking process had contaminated groundwater in the US. It was a barbed question and they knew it.
“Fracking happens very deep in the earth. We are unaware of any cases of contamination,” said Kramer through clenched teeth.
They clearly didn’t want to answer Charlotte Daneel either. Daneel said she had recently returned from the Netherlands where all the talk was about Shell’s CEO Peter Voser and how he’d said in an interview with the Financial Times that his greatest regret was getting the company into shale gas and that it was not as financially viable as it promised to be.
“Why is Shell pushing to frack here if they are selling up their shale gas options in the US?” she asked.
“There is a large amount of shale gas activity in the US. Prices go up and down in markets like that,” replied Kramer.
Finally farmer Dougie Stern stood up and took Shell to task. Their massive $2 billion loss from shale gas in the US was part of the volatility of the industry which is moving from boom to bust. Shell was leading the South African government into a failed economy, he said.
“Also, Shell tried to get exploration rights before there were any regulations governing fracking in this country, because regulations just slow you down. Thank God we had a lawyer like Derek Light to oppose attempts to frack in the Karoo otherwise you would already have left this place a wasteland.
“When there was a Rift Valley Fever outbreak, China refused to buy our wool. If our land and our livestock are contaminated, or if there’s even a suspicion of it, the impacts will be huge. Could we rely on Shell to compensate us?
“We are sick of all the half-truths and lies from Shell. I am going to walk out, and I call on my fellow farmers to join me.”
With that, everyone bar the Shell people and a few others stood up and filed out the door.
One farmer had the presence of mind to nip back in and retrieve the snacks, and so, during Church Street’s lunch-hour traffic, farmers, Khoi leaders and anti-fracking activists mingled and nibbled cheese sausages and egg-mayo sandwiches on the BP forecourt outside Kudu Motors. The Shell people left hungry.