Photographs by Chris Marais
Shell held a public meeting in Cradock on Monday 8 June 2015, but no one could quite figure out why.
The last time they’d hosted such a meeting in Cradock was on 10 March 2015 at the local golf club. It was embarrassingly badly attended. Barely a dozen people pitched up to listen to their plans to explore for shale gas in the Karoo.
Those who did attend though, noticed that Jan-Willem Eggink, general manager of Shell Upstream in South Africa, seemed uncharacteristically jocular and cheerful.
Five days later, the reason became clear. The Business Times broke the news that Shell was withdrawing its shale gas team from South Africa, including Eggink who was heading back to the Netherlands.
Every anti-fracker in South Africa lifted a glass to that news.
And yet here they were again. What for?
Yet Another Meeting. Why?
The invitation wasn’t really much help. All it said was:
“The purpose of the meeting (at Vusubuntu Centre) is to present members of our Executive management team, discuss our application and update you on where we are with this project.”
German hydrogeologist Dr Stefan Cramer and his wife Erika drove over from Graaff-Reinet to see if there was anything noteworthy to learn. So did lawyer Derek Light, who represents hundreds of Karoo landowners opposing fracking.
Also present were a few farmers, Inxuba Yethemba’s acting mayor and acting municipal manager, a few local ward representatives from Michausdal and Lingelihle and one lone Cradock businessman.
But it turned out to be curiously anticlimactic and almost as badly attended as the golf club meeting – with a total of 18 in the audience and 5 Shell people upfront.
The Shell team was there to glad-hand, to answer questions, to put their case across, and probably to conform to their corporate agenda of approachability and public participation. Box ticked.
Shell’s Karoo Meeting Methodology
These are a few of the dependable features of any Shell meeting in the Karoo nowadays.
- The Upstream Shell team will generally fly in from Cape Town, hire a car and stay in a decent local guesthouse. Their top guys. Even for a one-off, tiny gathering of random people;
- There is always a projector present for a tedious Powerpoint presentation;
- One hapless Shell person has to stand up before the meeting to alert attendees that the doors they’ve just entered by can double up as exits in the case of any kind of emergency;
- They always bring a little model with them to show how awesome and impermeable their underground well casings are. It is perched on a table until someone asks about water pollution;
- There are snacks.
Unbelievably, it seemed that this was going to be yet another of those meetings. Even the usual suspects were present:
- Shell Upstream general manager Jan-Willem Eggink (shivering in the Karoo winter cold with only shirtsleeves and a jacket);
- His colleague Niall Kramer. Both Eggink and Kramer must have been to hundreds of meetings with grumpy Karoo locals by now;
- Shell’s local community liaison officers, Mbuyiselo Nombembe and former Cradock Courant editor Riaan van der Walt.
But this time they’d brought along someone new: the man who replaces Jan-Willem Eggink when he departs South Africa for Holland at the end of June.
The new Shell Upstream General Manager is a remarkably youthful-looking chap by the name of Herman Neethling. He is a South African and is so new to his position that his business card still has his last job description on it: “Business Development Manager, Shell International Exploration & Production BV, The Hague, The Netherlands”.
Neethling did not have very much to say beyond introducing himself, pronouncing himself excited to be joining the project, and explaining he’s been working abroad for various countries with Shell.
Fortunately, we were spared Shell’s Powerpoint presentation this time because the projector had a bulb meltdown, providing an interesting image of Shell’s Karoo concession being slowly devoured by black dots.
Then it was the usual angry raising of issues from the floor, with the Shell team batting them down, dismissing them or denying them.
Double Downer: Oil Price and MPRDA
Some of the more notable facts that emerged were:
- Because of the low oil price, Shell “has to be frugal with its investments and areas of exploration”, according to Eggink. He said Shell was prioritising shale development in North America, China and Russia. “South Africa is an option. It depends on the regulations and our application.”
- Eggink confirmed that Shell would not sign any exploration agreement, even if the exploration licence were given to them tomorrow. “We and other companies are unhappy with the (current version of the) Minerals and Petroleum Resource Development Act. We want that finalised before we commit.”
- Eggink and his team mostly talk about 6 exploratory wells these days – that’s their minimum contractual obligation. Back in 2011 they spoke more about drilling 24 exploration wells across their 90 000 square kilometre concession);
- Finding commercially viable quantities of shale gas in the Karoo is not a foregone conclusion. Eggink and Kramer emphasised this point several times.
Derek Light pointed out that no matter how strong their well casings, cement and steel inevitably crack and corrode and 100% of the wells would leak sooner or later. Eggink denied this was the case, but didn’t satisfactorily explain how they could possibly be immortal.
Eggink said the recent US Environmental Protection Agency report proved that fracking did not cause any risk to water resources. Dr Stefan Cramer corrected him, saying the American environmental regulator’s report had been compromised by lack of co-operation from oil and gas companies as well as non-disclosure agreements between victims of fracking pollution and companies.
The Shell people still cannot say where the water will come from if they enter full production, except to say trucking it in would not be their first choice, and that part of exploration would involve examination of deep briny water far below the freshwater aquifers.
Derek Light pointed out that if they go ahead with full production using the figures they mention of 32 wells on a frack pad 5 kilometres apart, the sums completely overwhelm normal calculators. The quantities of water needed are staggering – at least twice what the Gariep Dam holds.
Eggink retorted they would recycle the produced water from fracked wells so the numbers would not be as huge.
Karoo Jobs, Renewables and Shale
There was heated discussion over jobs, with Eggink saying electricity produced from shale gas could directly and indirectly create thousands of jobs.
Erika Cramer said he was misleading hopeful jobseekers in the Karoo and pointed out that Germany’s renewable energy projects had already created 400 000 jobs.
Towards the end of the event, lawyer Derek Light, who has stood firm against would-be frackers since 2009, gave a gruff but touching farewell to Eggink.
“Despite our differences, I respect the way in which you have carried yourself. I wish you well.”
Eggink appeared taken aback and genuinely moved.
In return, he recounted the story of the day he had first met Derek Light in a television or radio studio back in 2011. “Derek came forward and shook my hand. Then he said ‘I’m the one who will stop you or delay you.’
“I’ve never forgotten that.”
- At the end of proceedings, all the combative posturing and hostile questions and retorts faded away. Eggink and Kramer started asking locals where they should go for supper. Kramer was all for hunting down a pizza at Mila’s. But Eggink good-naturedly used his seniority to insist on the delicious buffet at the Victoria Manor Hotel. It would probably be one of the last times he ate Karoo lamb….