Fracking, Shell and Bob’s Swimming Pool



The Victory Peace Angel outside the Graaff-Reinet town hall where the Council of Churches met Shell’s representatives.

You can see that Bob Govender has done many presentations on the subject of Shell’s quest to extract shale gas out of the Karoo. Firstly, he doesn’t travel alone. He comes along with a pack of people who are here to answer questions on social impact and other vexatious issues.

Bob also comes with an air of humble sincerity, a screen, a slide projector, and a Powerpoint presentation which he wields effortlessly. He has done this many, many times. And so it was on 18 April 2013 at the Graaff-Reinet town hall, where the Camdeboo Council of Churches asked Shell to address them on their oil and gas company’s intentions in the Karoo.

Bob comes across as easy to chat to, the ordinary guy with budget and weight issues. He and Jan Willem Eggink (general manager of Shell Upstream in South Africa) have been criss-crossing the Karoo, talking to farmers’ groups, gardening clubs, almost anyone who will listen.

They recently crossed the country to address 7 people near the Conway railway siding. They are engaging to an almost comical degree.

Primly Enticing

Graaff-Reinet’s town hall.

Bob assures us that Shell’s presentation hasn’t changed a bit since they first started doing talks in the Karoo. But anyone who has been to a number of these presentations will realise much has changed.

The first new thing is a Powerpoint slide which fills the screen with text headed “Cautionary Note”. This is from Shell’s lawyers and it shows on the screen for about a minute, impossible to really read and take in unless you’re in the first few rows. It would be safe to assume that it says something about not taking the speaker seriously if he commits the corporation to expensive and unnecessary safety measures or admits that fracking is bad.

Secondly he’s not using the word fracking or even hydraulic fracturing very much. After having come up with the term, the oil and gas industry seems to be distancing itself from the word ‘fracking’. Bob refers to hydraulic stimulation of wells, which sounds primly enticing.

He also admits they made a mistake in not admitting upfront what kinds of chemicals they might want to use.

They’re happy to confess all now.

During the presentation, some new promises and statistics are unveiled. For example, Bob says that if Jan Willem Eggink becomes convinced that fracking cannot be done in an environmentally sustainable manner, Shell has undertaken to pull out. Really? Eggink was not at the meeting – he was unavoidably detained in The Hague.

When it gets to the part of the presentation where it says there is enough conventional and unconventional gas reserves (the ratios remain undefined) to keep fulfil the world’s needs for 250 years, Bob accidentally says “250 million years”. Astounded, a few people look sideways at one another with wide eyes. What?

Few Jobs, Much Toxic Wastewater

Shell is also more forthcoming these days on the social impact and the jobs, or the lack of them. They have made it clear there will be no more than a few dozen jobs going over a period of 10 exploratory years. They will be for unskilled people and will mostly only last 3 months, which is the time it will take to drill and frack a borehole.

They are also admitting that the hope of jobs will draw many people and that communities will likely see inmigrations of hopeful job-seekers and a rise in crime, drugs and prostitution. Trucks on the road will increase, so there may be fatalities.

On these and all other social ills, Shell says they will work with existing NGOs to mitigate and solve problems.

“We will mitigate as far as possible,” is a phrase Bob repeats often.

He probably says it in his sleep.

Reverend Sam Zakay of the Camdeboo Council of Churches chaired the meeting.

The other new bit of information that came out of Bob’s latest presentation is what will happen to the wastewater – the millions of litres of ‘produced water’ that will be regurgitated from the deep earth after it has been fracked. Because it will probably be somewhat radioactive and contaminated with chemicals and volatile organic compounds, it must be disposed of at a suitable hazardous waste site.

They have only 2 choices – Germiston or Koeberg’s disposal site north of Cape Town. If they enter full production, every effort will be made to recycle as much as possible, but Shell will eventually have to create hazardous waste facilities to receive the fracking water, said Bob.

Bridge or Destination?

We are also hearing about Bob’s swimming pool a lot. He reckons the cost of electricity is now so high that he has to switch off his pool pump, causing his pool to go a nasty shade of green.

Clearly a job at Shell does not pay well, which bodes ill for the ‘nuisance fee’ they’ve said they will pay farmers on whose land wells might be drilled.

Then he goes on to explain how gas is “abundant, accessible and affordable”. He talks about how setting up a gas-fired turbine costs a tenth of what it costs to put up a coal-fired or nuclear plant.

He shakes his head sorrowfully at the fact that a coal power station will only last 30 years before it needs upgrading. But he says nothing about the average shale gas well only lasting 6 years, on average, before it is added to the long list of environmental liabilities we are passing on to our children as their birthright.

The most interesting new thing in Shell’s presentation is that back at the beginning of 2011, when the company unveiled its plans to frack the Karoo, shale gas was spoken of as a bridging fuel between now and a fully renewable-energy future.

But renewable power is a viable option today.

As a result Bob’s Powerpoint presentation labels it a ‘Destination Fuel’. He says we are probably going to have to diversify in our energy mix (which is quite correct) and that Shell calculates that gas and renewable will each provide 20% to the mix, which will also be made up of nuclear, coal and the usual suspects.

Bob’s Swimming Pool

Back to Bob’s pool, which becomes something of a leitmotif throughout the entire presentation. If he, Bob, asked eight people in a room how to get his green pool blue again, he’d probably get eight opinions, he points out. Then he might go to a swimming pool shop where there are many kinds of chemicals available for use, choose one or two or more, and then use them on his pool.

He would never expose his son to five litres of pool acid because it is so dangerous, said Bob. But a few days later, that same child would be safe to swim in the pool, despite all the chemicals. The message is clear: chemicals need caution, but they’re certainly not to be feared. But since he’s said the fracking wastewater can only be disposed of as hazardous waste, it’s clearly way more dangerous than swimming pool water.

Also, does telling stories about swimming pools really work on a Karoo audience, most of whom grew up swimming in rivers and farm dams full of frogs?

Bob Govender (far right) waits to speak. Rev Nancy Charton sits in the middle, with a shock of white hair.

Water, Life and Expensive Power

At question time the older people gave Bob a hard time, and no one more so than the Reverend Nancy Charton.

She wielded the March copy of National Geographic, in which it spoke of catastrophic failures of well casings and salt water migration into drinking water from oil fracking in the US.

“Water is the stuff of life. If there is no clean water, there is no life, no human life. This does not just affect farmers. It affects every living soul in this town. We are accountable  to the generations who come after us, for whom these will be issues of life and death.”

Retired Graaff-Reinet farmer Walter Murray told Shell that the Tulbagh earthquake in 1969 had rippled all the way across the Karoo and had shaken the shutters right off his house. “It would break your well-casings as if they were no stronger than a pencil”.

Bob had to concede that shale gas will be difficult and expensive to extract in the Karoo because it is the only shale field in the world with riddled with ironstone, and because they will have to create all the infrastructure from scratch, import all the equipment and all the personnel. He admitted it would probably lead to high electricity costs.  Shale gas seeks to present itself as accessible, abundant and affordable. Clearly it is anything but.

Bob may be better off turning his swimming pool into a fish pond.

Here’s the thing, though. The Shell guys may hang their heads in shame and exasperation as people pick at their arguments. They may actively mislead and misrepresent, and be found wanting in their answers. But at least they’re there. At least they’ll talk, and make rash promises and stick their heads above the parapets.

Where is Canadian-owned Falcon Oil & Gas and its American stable-mate, Chevron? Where is Bundu and its new Australian owner, Challenger Energy? Not a word. Not a meeting. Absolute radio silence. Suddenly it seems rather endearing to be listening to stories about Bob’s pool.

The Famous Cautionary Note

On request, Shell eventually sent me a copy of their presentation including their Cautionary Note. The Cautionary Note basically says various statements in the presentation could be completely wrong. Or if they are not wrong now, they may be wrong in the future thanks to a set of 13 variables including (but not limited to) drilling and production results, changes in demand for Shell’s products, economic conditions, regulations, price fluctuations and various unnamed risks.

It also says that if any conditions do change, or new facts come to light, they are under no obligation to say a word.


4 thoughts on “Fracking, Shell and Bob’s Swimming Pool

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