Karoo Fracking: Locked Gates and Loaded Shotguns

Philip O'Quigley, CEO Falcon
Aberdeen, Karoo, Eastern Cape
Aberdeen, with its slightly off-centre church steeple.

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

Falcon Part 1: Aberdeen 6 February 2015, Friday afternoon

If you turn off the N9 for a few minutes to drive through the town of Aberdeen, there are a few things you’ll notice immediately.

First is the tall church steeple which leans very slightly sideways.

Second, the authentic Karoo architecture, complete with intricate ‘broekielace’ on stoeps, sash windows and shutters.

Third is that Aberdeen almost always has dramatic skies, yet rainfall doesn’t happen often. This is dry country, with an average rainfall of 250mm a year.

Everyone here lives on groundwater. If the town’s 8 boreholes failed for whatever reason, then the lives and livelihoods of around 14 000 mostly poor townspeople would be put at risk.

Aberdeen, Karoo
The streets of Aberdeen.

Heat and Anger in Aberdeen

In the late afternoon of Friday 6 February 2015, the parking bays outside Aberdeen’s Library Hall were full.

Inside, spinning ceiling fans barely kept the air moving and there was a simmering anger among the people who had come to listen to would-be shale gas frackers Falcon Oil & Gas.

Hovering near the stage was a tense looking man in a golf shirt. He was Falcon Oil & Gas CEO Philip O’Quigley, fresh out from Dublin, Ireland.

Also attending:

  • Many farmers (evident by the shoes that have seen better days, 2-tone shirts and short shorts);
  • The polite and friendly SRK consultants who had compiled Falcon’s Environmental Management Programme under discussion, all with name badges;
  • Half a dozen people colour-coded in blue Democratic Alliance t-shirts;
  • Derek Light, a Graaff-Reinet lawyer representing hundreds of landowners opposing shale gas exploitation;
  • Dr Stefan Cramer, German hydrogeologist, also based in Graaff-Reinet;
  • Dougie Stern, one of the Karoo farmers who has been to the US to see the effects of fracking on agriculture firsthand;
  • A few media people from the SABC television, Graaff-Reinet Advertiser and the Weekend Post.
  • As usual, there were no farmworkers, and very few people from the nearby township.

One of the first issues to be resolved was that the ceiling fans had to stay on, which meant the bad sound system was also necessary.

Falcon, Aberdeen, karoo
There was a simmering tension in Aberdeen’s Library Hall.

Shale House Rules

Then Elna de Beer of SRK, the consulting firm that had conducted the Environmental Management Programme for Falcon, began by firmly explaining the “House Rules”.

“Please be respectful and don’t interrupt. Question time is when we say so. No talk about fracking, since this isn’t about fracking, it is about seismic surveying.”

Falcon Karoo
Falcon’s plans were placed up on the walls.

While Falcon and its partners would ultimately want to frack as part of exploring for shale gas in the Karoo Basin, the first three years would be focused on obtaining information on underground shale layers by planting a kilogram of dynamite in a 5-metre deep hole every 50 metres for 1000 km and measuring the underground sound waves.

Government had given shale gas applicants like Falcon, Bundu and Shell a chance to review and update their 2011 Environmental Management Programme (EMPr) because of “deep seated concerns expressed by interested and affected persons”.

So after four years of complete silence, Falcon had given interested and affect parties 30 days to comment on its exploration plans, with the aim of obtaining an exploration licence.

Meetings had already been held in Sutherland, Laingsburg, Merweville and Leeu Gamka.

The next day would be Jansenville, followed by Rietbron, Beaufort West and finishing off with a meeting in Cape Town’s Parow Civic Centre on 11 February.

First to speak was Philip O’Quigley, Falcon’s chief executive.

Background on Falcon Oil & Gas

Philip O'Quigley, Falcon Oil and Gas
Philip O’Quigley, chief executive officer of Falcon Oil & Gas

O’Quigley became CEO of Falcon in May 2012, two years after Falcon snapped up their current southern Karoo Basin shale gas concession.

It is a company generally referred to as an ‘energy junior’. (Big multinationals like Shell are referred to as majors).

O’Quigley’s profile on the Falcon Oil & Gas website states that his previous job was as finance director for Irish oil and gas company Providence Resources. He is a qualified chartered accountant.

Falcon has three unconventional shale concessions – the Mako Trough in Hungary, the Beetaloo Basin in Australia and 30 000 square kilometres of southern Karoo Basin.

In each case, O’Quigley brought in outside partners for exploration. None of the concessions is yet in production phase.

The company’s business strategy, described on their website, says: “Falcon seeks to add value to its assets by entering into farm-out arrangements with major oil and gas companies that will fully or partially carry Falcon through seismic and drilling work programmes.”

Once he joined Falcon, O’Quigley set about seeking financing and partners.

  • In December 2012, he announced a partnership with Chevron to “jointly seek unconventional exploration opportunities in the Karoo Basin”.
  • In January 2013, he brought in a company called Naftna Industrija Srbije to drill three exploratory wells in Hungary.
  • In August 2014, he brought in Origin Energy Resources Limited and Sasol Petroleum Australia Limited (a subsidiary of Sasol Ltd) as partners in the Beetaloo Basin, part of Australia’s Northern Territory.

Falcon is listed on the Toronto, London and Dublin stock exchanges. Its headquarters are in Dublin, with another office in Budapest.

In late 2014, the company was valued at 65 million pounds.

SABC cameras, fracking meeting, Karoo
This was one of the first Karoo meetings to attract national television attention.

Falcon, O’Quigley and Chevron

In his soft Irish lilt, O’Quigley told the crowd of around 90 people that although the exploration licence was sought by Falcon, the exploratory seismic testing would be conducted by Chevron, “should Chevron choose to take up the option”.

O’Quigley said he might sell the exploration licence on.

His words did not sit well with most of the audience.

Riled by the ‘House Rules’ and the threat of explosives on his land, one of the farmers received a loud round of applause when he said:

“You didn’t ask if it was all right to come here. You made up the rules. Who will give you permission to come on my land? I can give you the answer now. No, you may not enter!

“My gates are locked. And don’t come with any helicopters, because my shotgun will be loaded.”

Derek Light, Falcon, Aberdeen
Derek Light (middle), writing notes during the meeting.

This Report is Meaningless

SRK project manager Danelle Fourie also came in for flack after presenting Falcon’s Environmental Management Programme (EMPr) to the crowd.

It turned out that while Falcon has drawn some red lines on a map indicating where it wants to do seismic testing, the exact route is far from finalised.

As a result, there can be no meaningful engagement, Derek Light pointed out.

Derek Light
Derek Light (with microphone), said SRK’s report on Falcon’s planned seismic testing was meaningless and an insult.

“The regulations dictate you need to indicate where your activities will be performed. You can’t say you are exempt from that. It has got to be in the EMPr.

“You had four years to get this information. Where is it?

“You can’t wait until you have the exploration licence and are in a position of strength before you decide the terms.”

“It is difficult for me to be polite about this. This report is insulting. How can you ask us to comment when we don’t even know where you are going to be doing your seismic testing?

“This document is meaningless. Why persist? Why waste our time?

“You say your area is too large to complete the study. Why then did you choose such a large area? We didn’t choose it for you. You chose it.”

“You cannot produce an EMPr that informs us. You are required to incorporate site-specific information for meaningful discourse. This is even apparent to lay people.”

Falcon, SRK, Aberdeen
Falcon CEO Philip O’Quigley with Danelle Fourie (with microphone) and Elna de Beer of SRK.

Locked Gates and Loaded Shotguns

Pushed to describe what factors would determine the final routing of the seismic testing, Philip O’Quigley said these were science (as in geology and geography), logistics (roads and servitudes) and “locked gates and loaded shotguns”.

It’s possible that Falcon and SRK thought they’d escape the worst of public scrutiny because they are doing seismic surveying, not drilling exploratory wells or fracking.

If so, they were wrong.

During and after the meeting, farmers exchanged anecdotes about how boreholes had suddenly stopped running. They talked about underground rivers and waterlines, and how delicate they are.

Falcon Oil and Gas, Karoo Basin exploration area
SRK map of preliminary seismic survey lines in red within the yellow border of Falcon’s concession area.

Rabie Gericke, the borehole and pump repair man in town, pointed at one of the red seismic survey lines just under Aberdeen on the rather confusing SRK map.

“That line? The west-east line you see on this map? That’s where Aberdeen’s water comes from. I know someone whose borehole stopped running after people using explosives to test for uranium.

“Anything happens there, this town is without water. And then what? Who is going to help us then?”

Pieter Jordaan, Aberdeen, Karoo
Pieter Jordaan of Aberdeen said Falcon wasn’t even getting the easy stuff right.

Landowner Pieter Jordaan stood up to say:

“You tell us that fracking may only happen in the future. Is that supposed to make us feel better?

“We are not idiots, and we are not happy with this. Where will the precise lines for the surveys be? If things go wrong, who will compensate and who will handle claims?”

“This is just the easy stuff, the paperwork. When you people actually come to frack, what will happen? You can’t even get the easy stuff right.

“I have a two-year-old boy. You have come here to take his birthright away. You walk away with the money. What about our land and our debts?”

Falcon Aberdeen meeting
Falcon has three unconventional oil and gas concessions – one each in Hungary, Australia and South Africa.

Dynamite and Desktop Studies

It emerged that the studies mentioned in the EMP were ‘desktop studies’. In other words, existing literature had been used for information.

No one from Falcon or SRK or Chevron had actually visited the Karoo, taken samples of soil, or surveyed plants, ancient rock etchings or rare animals.

“Where did you get your information?” asked Pieter Jordaan. “Your groundwater studies could be 40 years old for all we know. You can’t say. Maybe they were studies done before centre pivots began being used for crops.”

Using these desktop studies, SRK had suggested mitigating measures to Falcon.

Karoo farming
There seemed to be an assumption that the Karoo was flat and open.

They seemed to assume the Karoo was flat and easy to traverse.

“Seismic data acquisition activities will move along rapidly (up to 10km a day) and direct impacts will therefore be of very short duration,” SRK wrote in the EMP executive summary.

If they are right, this means they will be exploding up to 200kg of dynamite a day.

What damage does a kilogram of dynamite cause? Danelle Fourie of SRK recommended googling YouTube videos of dynamite explosions.

Time and time again, locals raised the issue of fracking, despite SRK’s attempts to keep talk focused on seismic surveying.

“You can’t talk about this exploration and not talk about fracking,” protested one man. “The one leads to the other.”

Billions, Yet Cheap Equipment

Rabie Gericke, Aberdeen
Rabie Gericke knows all the boreholes around Aberdeen.

O’Quigley countered: “We know there is a fear that once we start we will never stop. But that is not the case. There are huge hurdles for a long period of time, and our chances of success at this stage are only 10 to 20%.

“This phase of seismic surveying will cost a billion rand in the end. What we learn may not be enough or might be inconclusive. We will have to make a decision, us and our partners, to go forward to the next phase.

“If we go to the second phases, we will drill four to six wells and frack them – if the fracking regulations have been promulgated. That will cost another few billion over about five years.

“In about seven to 10 years time, we get to the FID, the Final Investment Decision. Only then do we make a commitment on exploitation. There are very many unknown factors and hurdles before then.”

Derek Light challenged Falcon’s financial and operational capacity.

O’Quigley insisted it was his choice to have a business model that brought in bigger partners.

Towards the end, Rabie Gericke the pump repair man summed it all up.

“You talk come here talking about billions. But then you use a cheap China sound system? We can’t even hear you!”

Philip O'Quigley, CEO Falcon
Philip O’Quigley and the offending sound system.


46 thoughts on “Karoo Fracking: Locked Gates and Loaded Shotguns

  1. Ludwig Churr says:

    They have limited resources.
    Yet happy to spend billions on a 10 to 20% chance of success!

    Please tell me I am not with Alice in Wonder Land.

  2. Michael Fletcher says:

    Well done to the residents of Aberdeen for standing up and seeing through the smoke and mirrors. If you dont want fracking then they must be stopped at this phase of seismic exploration.

    I am locked and loaded and ready to lend my support to the Karoo because next it will be my land….

  3. Liziwe McDaid says:

    Great response by Aberdeen, Thank you to the people of Aberdeen for taking a stand. we will be doing the same in Cape Town.
    We support you in protecting our heritage.

  4. Lady says:

    Fantasties Aberdeeners!

    Hierdie gekke spul moet gestop word – hoe gouer hoe beter!!!


    Awesome people of Aberdeen!

    This insanity has to be stopped – the sooner the better!

  5. Ludwig Churr says:

    All please take note.

    There was a TV report on 9 Feb 2015, dealing with old mines in JHB and other places.
    Government allowed mining companies to “write off” future liability to restore fix environment after mines are closed.

    Sorry was busy with other stuff and do not know more details but perhaps others also saw the TV report dealing with JHB. Can be traced but I am busy with other research, but do care about the Karoo.

    The TV news said that it is now difficult to sell (old closed mines?). Who will buy an old closed mines liability to fix environment? If done once, who will buy old closed down fracking operation to fix environment after mine has closed down?

    Just asking.

    BTW I stopped filling up at Shell

  6. Carol Payne says:

    Well done Aberdeen. However it would have been great if the local, poorer populace could be encouraged to show up at these meetings. We need to make many, many more people aware of what is happening. We have to prevent fracking at any cost and I wonder if it is possible to hold meetings like this in Johannesburg.

  7. Mark Ingle says:

    By my reckoning, if Julie’s numbers (1kg of dynamite every 50m for 1000km) are correct then we’re looking at 20 000kg (or 20 tons) of dynamite being exploded by just one concessionary in the Karoo. If this were happening on my turf I’d take a keen interest in the matter. Where are the representatives of the people? Or were they, in the interests of transparency, briefed privately?

  8. Zoe George says:

    The only positive that might come out of a seismic survey is that deeper, currently unknown, sources of groundwater might be discovered.

    If the Karoo community has an organisation which represents their interests and negotiates on their behalf with would-be frackers, then it would be worthwhile insisting that the raw data and the company’s interpretations of the data are made available to the Karoo team for analysis re groundwater. The data would also be essential in assigning cause and effect for undesirable outcomes. Confidentiality could be agreed to which would protect the exploration company’s interests.

    For unfettered access to R1 billion of seismic data potentially useful for groundwater, it may be worth making a bargain with the devil, especially since any blanket refusals are likely to be(?) over-ruled by government, and the probability of finding economic gas is not high.

    • Mark Ingle says:

      Tedious of me I know but “the Karoo community” DOES have “an organisation which represents their interests and [should] negotiate on their behalf with would-be frackers”. It ‘s called Local Government.

  9. Deon says:

    Don’t be fooled by the costs quoted here. That billion for the seismic testing phase is quoted in rand, not even a spot on the value of Falcon valued at 65 billion POUNDS – hardly cost prohibitive, cheap in fact, as cheap as a Chinese PA system.

    Love how big corporates roll into small towns thinking they’ll be dealing with small minds.

    Thank you for providing a clear perspective on the meeting and well done Aberdeen!

  10. Ron Brunings says:

    A great report. This issue is of such significance it simply astounds me that local councillors and technical staff were not present. Opposition to fracking is a war of attrition, with the big players relying on locals to simply lose interest – which is a ploy used successfully again and again in controversial developments.

    Congratulations to the people of Aberdeen for standing up against it. Ultimately it will be the basics that count – an angry landowner, a locked gate and a loaded shotgun.

  11. Colin Baker says:

    Just to say that my wife and I here in the UK are delighted at the stand you have made. Big Bully trying to impose its will and financial clout over your community – why should you put up with it. Stand Firm folks.

  12. Craig King says:

    I should have thought that one of the majors could be encouraged to drill and frack a test well for demonstration purposes. Surely that would go a long way towards ameliorating the concerns of farmers if it is as described by the company.

    The idea of using the seismic study to find new sources of ground water is an excellent one too.

    • Hendrik Gouws says:

      No drilling no testing no nothing! They need to get out of town and country. If they stay for whatever reason or promise, THEY WILL DESTROY. They are parasites with no regard for anything other than their money. Once they get their claws into the host you’re done !

  13. Maria Pache says:

    Well done people of Aberdeen for standing up to those horrible Oil exploration companies which have nothing else in mind than the “rape” of our precious Karoo Land!
    Fracking MUST BE STOPPED right now before they set their feet on the ground for whatever testing they say they will want to do.
    We did not ask them to come here – the greedy, corrupt government officials with their open hands and bribery are to blame for this – like so many other things that have gone wrong in the past 20 years of their governance.
    I wish you all the strength in kicking them out – go CAPE TOWN tell them to eff-off!!!

    • Piet van Wyk says:

      Good luck in Cape Town. The Beaufort West meetings went well. The message was clear. Get out and stay away!! Falcon is just looking to make a buck by selling it onto the next one. Let’s all compare notes after the Cape Town meeting and set up a united front to stop the Gas & Oil Companies and Government.

  14. François Du Toit from African Conservation Trust says:

    Just curious, how much solar power does R1 billion buy? Surely a better investment by the Falcons? ! For a 10 to 20% success chance? These guys are the slick fronts to the dirty end. And lessons learned. They prepare shoddy desktop studies that provide vague and suitably elastic “details that allow officials with equally elastic morals to bend rules. Force them to give detail. Their costs will escalate and the time frames extend. Details at the early stage. Love your spirit Aberdeen. Now spread the word! !

  15. Hendrik Gouws says:

    I am a former resident of that beautiful town. I currently reside in the USA and have seen first hand what fracking does to groundwater. The is absolutely NO DOUBT FRACKING DESTROYS the groundwater.

    Fracking will turn Aberdeen and surrounding farms into a ghost town. Large corporations make large promises and they cannot guarantee anything.

    Once they have made their money they leave the destroyed desolate areas behind with no regard for fauna and flora, let alone the lives and futures they destroyed. Throw them out while you still have a chance !

  16. Supporter says:

    I am an environmental consultant and i know what it feels like to be pushing a client’s needs in an EIA or EMPr. But I can sleep assured that I will not sell out my soul or the rights of people for the sake of a client.
    That being said, I want to play devils advocate – we are seeing mineral and development rights in Africa flooding to the Chinese and yet little is done to stop it. Should we not be looking at the problem of international corporate greed more broadly!!

  17. Angela says:

    Well done residents of Aberdeen…I am sad that the turn out was so poor but am so grateful that those who were there had done their homework…I want to ask Falcon WHY can those billions not be spend on renewable energy???The whole idea of fracking is a no brainer, even an imbecile can see that with even basic research…and is just one more knot in the noose for oil companies…I already know of people who are starting to fast from fossil fuels…guess what this is just the beginning of us all waking up to who you all are and guess what, you have children who will be ashamed of everything you stand for and what evil you perpetuate with your GREED and they will bare the brunt of your selfish actions by having to live in the dead world you create…You have the choice to change…and we (the people of South Africa) are giving you that chance with these meetings…

  18. Barries says:

    The problem is that guys don’t understand Siesmic and Seismic equipment. The source(Dynamite or Vibes) will not harm the environment.

    • Hendrik Gouws says:

      It’s not the seismic testing that is the problem. The problem is what it would lead to. I have seen tap water that used to be pristine drinking water turn into a flammable liquid from the same tap in the same kitchen. Fracking destoys ground water period. Ask this Philip O’Quigley to fill the water bottle in his hand with water (from one of the towns where his company is currently fracking) and drink it. ( preferably in a biodegradable bottle too).
      Testing now also show that fracking may assist in the advancement of earthquakes and tremors. Only logical.

      Seismic testing = fracking = destruction of the natural enviroment. Period.

    • Hendrik Gouws says:

      Fracking is bad news from every single angle except financially for a few select corporate giants out of control. They buy and bully their way in and once they have made their money they disappear and leave the locals to deal with the consequences.

    • Ludwig Churr says:

      Agreed dynamite does nothing. Just look at the mine dumps in JHB and the Free State. Plus the contaminated water left behind. Arsenic etc used in the process.

      There was a news broadcast this past week 16 Feb 2015 about Government having allowed mines to write off their liability to clean the environment.

      Mines are now finished. Mine dumps’ waste environment still needs to be fixed.
      Kimberly mine is an unfolding story so cannot comment.

      Once bitten twice shy.

      So after they pumped sea water into the Karoo basin, will they replace it with Arsenic water from JHB and Free State?

      Yes you are correct. I am one guy that does not understand. I even have a N.U.T.S. certificate to proof it.

      (Not Understanding The System.)

      • Ludwig Churr says:

        Allowed to write off means the mines do not have the money to clean up the dumps. Why do you think the dumps are still there years after the mines have stopped operating. I grew up on the West Rand, worked in JHB and travelled to the East Rand.

        The dumps that are being removed are mined for the gold left in the sand after the first wash many years ago when the process was not as refined as today.

        Those dumps are therefore not removed to clean up the environment.

        Not Understanding The System

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  20. Judy Maguire says:

    Congratulations Prince Albert Municipality for being present at the Leeuw-Gamka Falcon meeting in the form of a Councillor AND a Municipal official. The meeting not so dramatic as Aberdeen and Jansenville but made much the same points. great many Karoo towns are borehole-dependent – point also made by Aberdeen.

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