Pictures by Chris Marais
At first, it seemed as if someone optimistic had arranged the seating for the shale gas development study meeting in the Umasizakhe Community Hall in Graaff-Reinet’s township on 9 November 2015.
Within the facebrick interior, there must have been at least 130 plastic chairs waiting under the spinning ceiling fans and bright neon lights.
A quarter of an hour before meeting time (4pm), there were barely more members of the audience than scientists.
Twenty minutes later though, numbers had grown gratifyingly to around 80 – a fair turnout when compared to many shale gas meetings hosted by fracking companies or the Eastern Cape provincial government.
But things were about to go strangely awry.
The Strategic Environmental Assessment on Shale Gas Development (SEASGD)
First, some background. This meeting was the first public engagement from scientists involved in the Strategic Environmental Assessment on Shale Gas Development (SEASGD). The study was launched by the SA Government in May 2015.
The SEASGD, costing R12 million and to be carried out over 24 months, has the aim of improving understanding of the risks and opportunities around exploration and production of possible shale gas deposits in the Karoo.
The project team for the study includes the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Council for Geosciences and is led by Professor Bob Scholes.
A highly-respected A-rated scientist who lectures on systems ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Prof Scholes is a research associate at the CSIR, and is one of South Africa’s top climate change specialists.
The study involves five national departments led by Environmental Affairs and partnered by Water and Sanitation, Energy, Mineral Resources, Science and Technology; three provincial governments (Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape); as well as the various District Municipalities affected by shale gas concessions and 27 local municipalities.
The study is unprecedented in its scope, covering 17 Strategic Issues, which are:
- Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
- Water Resources (surface and ground water)
- Spatial Planning and Infrastructure
- National Energy Planning
- Waste Management
- Human Health
- Air Quality and Green House Gases
- Social Fabric
- Electromagnetic interference
- Heritage Resources
- ‘Sense of place’.
Each Strategic Issue is being tackled by multiple authorities in the various fields. There is also a Process Custodians Group (PCG) which represents non-governmental organisations, research specialists, government representatives and companies with shale gas interests.
The Strategic Environmental Assessment must be salient, credible and legitimate, said Prof Scholes.
Government’s initiation of the SEA was a laudable step, particularly since the technique of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas has never been used in South Africa. Shell’s concession area alone sprawls over 90 000 square kilometres of sensitive semi-desert.
This far-reaching study was something that various stakeholders had been calling for since 2012.
When it was launched, however, Government made clear its intention to allow exploration to begin running parallel with the study. Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) immediately called for a moratorium on exploration until the study was completed.
But the plummeting oil price and ongoing uncertainty with South Africa’s oil and gas legislation did more to delay exploration than anything else. To date, not one well has been drilled by any of the three concession-holders in the Karoo (Shell, Falcon and Challenger Energy). Before they are allowed to drill, they would need to satisfy published regulations, which include a year of baseline monitoring.
Unlike the public engagement by these corporates, the SEA was not legally compelled to consult the public, although transparency in these processes is encouraged.
Graaff-Reinet based geologist Dr Stefan Cramer, who is on the Process Custodians Group, said: “The scientists involved felt that it would be good practice to involve people from the region right from the beginning. They wanted to listen to concern from officials and the affected communities so that their comments and ideas could be incorporated into specialist studies.”
The Hazards of Public Engagement
The meeting did not start with a prayer for wisdom and guidance, as often happens at meetings hosted by corporates like Shell, Falcon and Challenger Energy.
Instead, facilitator Hendrik Kotze from the University of Stellenbosch stood up and briefly explained the format. He would introduce the project team, he said, then give some information about the study, and after that comments and questions would be invited from the audience.
Seemingly on impulse, he suddenly asked the audience what their expectations were. It is the kind of question that usually results in bowed heads and averted eyes in normal meetings.
But this time, hands shot up.
One of the first belonged to Vuyisile Booysen of the Karoo Shale Gas Community Forum, a pro-fracking organisation created by former ANC provincial leader in the Western Cape, Chris Nissen.
He said the meeting was not demographically representative of the residents of Umasizakhe and that people had not been informed about it.
Booysen called for the meeting to be rescheduled.
“It is no use. Only a few privileged individuals are here. We heard at the last minute that this meeting was happening.”
Penn Koeberg, who identified himself as being from the Karoo Mining Development organisation and trade union Nehawu (National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union), said he shared the motion.
“We want to be in control of the information. The right people must be informed. How will the information get out?”
Stewart Giyose, originally from Graaff-Reinet but now an entrepreneur based in Cape Town, said he had objections to the racial make-up of the meeting and did not feel it represented the 51 000 people of the town.
An emerging farmer from the Graaff-Reinet district, who gave his name only as Hanabe said people want to be directly informed. “We object to this meeting because we cannot make a decision for the people of Kroonvale and the central town.”
Leonie Fouche of the Camdeboo Local Municipality confirmed they had received no notification of the meeting.
Facilitator Hendrik Kotze tried in vain to let people know that no decision needed to be taken. All they wanted to do was share some of the information of the study and to receive input from the community, he said.
“This will not be the only meeting. This is only one in a series of opportunities for input.”
Booysen offered to take over the organisation of the next meeting in Graaff-Reinet.
Communicating with the Karoo
In fact, the most productive part of the gathering was the insight into how news is spread (or not) among small Karoo communities.
Greg Schreiner of the CSIR explained that all the relevant national departments, provincial departments and district departments had been informed of the meetings, as had the SA Local Government Association (SALGA).
A comprehensive website had been set up (http://seasgd.csir.co.za/). Advertisements had been placed in national and provincial newspapers as well as radio stations.
The Process Custodian Group had helped put the message out and it had been put out through social media, said Schreiner.
Koeberg insisted they had been completely unaware of any advertisements, emails or other electronic communications and they only heard about the meeting at the last minute by word of mouth.
The local municipality mostly communicated with them via a bakkie equipped with a loudhailer, he added.
After the meeting, Scholes was philosophical about the lack of progress. When asked for his reading of events, he mentioned the broader South African context, “like the #FeesMustFall campaign and service delivery protests. People felt they were not consulted.”
The Next Meetings
The next day SEA scientists moved on to Victoria West where things went as planned.
“A very productive meeting was held with about 30 participants from many sectors, who emphasised they were concerned about water issues,” said Scholes.
He reported that at Beaufort West, there were about 60 people present, from a wide range of interest groups. The meeting “was a reprise of Graaff-Reinet, except this time I was able to complete most of my briefing before the interjection came that people had not been adequately informed.”
Scholes noted that at the Beaufort West meeting, Henry Fortuin of the Western Cape government gave details of how the local municipality had been informed well in advance and that announcements had been made on the local radio station.
The SEA team agreed, however, to return to repeat the exercise at a later date.
“The final meeting was with around 100 registered stakeholders, in Cape Town. An entire day was spent going into the process and proposed content of the SEASGD in detail.
“The meeting was lively and engaged, and many attendees expressed their satisfaction with the process and information provided.
“A key concern was the capacity and readiness of the various regulatory organisations to adequately enforce any rules relating to fracking, should they be promulgated.”
- The first chapter of the SEASGD will be released within a few weeks, according to Scholes. It describes four possible scenarios (No Shale Gas Development; Exploration Only; Exploration and Limited Development; Exploration and Intensive Development).
- Early indications are that commercially viable shale gas reserves in the Karoo are way lower than some public estimates.