Karoo Fracking: A Perfect Storm over Pearston

Princess Jean Burgess, First People, Karoo
Pearston town hall, Karoo
Bundu’s public participation meeting was held at the Pearston town hall, with a storm building.

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

Bundu Gas & Oil: Pearston 13 February 2015

On Friday morning in mid-February, a smallish Australian mining company walked smack-bang into a South African drama – a real fracking minefield.

The setting? Pearston, a small Karoo town completely reliant on groundwater – as most are.

Pearston road sign.
Pearston is one of the Karoo’s poorest towns.

The issues? In no particular order:

  • Water;
  • Jobs;
  • Fracking;
  • Black economic empowerment;
  • Land hunger;
  • Hungry people;
  • Food security;
  • Energy hunger;
  • The First Indigenous People;
  • The price of oil;
  • The Minerals and Petroleum Development Amendment Act;
  • Spiritual and cultural beliefs;
  • Zuma’s State of the Nation Address.

The players?

  • One Australian company (Challenger Energy) and its local subsidiary Bundu Gas & Oil;
  • One lone black empowerment partner, conspicuously absent (Donald Ncube);
  • One consulting company with a history (Golder Associates Africa, which also consulted for Shell);
  • Fifty or more very poor and vocal members of the Pearston local community seeking jobs from, and blessings for, Bundu;
  • Dozens of grumpy farmers;
  • One anti-fracking organisation (Treasure Karoo Action Group);
  • Four Khoi Khoi tribal leaders dressed in robes and skins;
  • One country lawyer wise to the ways of frackers (Derek Light);
  • The Karoo’s dolerite-riddled geology;
  • Media, including Weekend Post, Die Burger, Karoo Space, and a French documentary team.

And as if that wasn’t dramatic enough, it was also Friday the Thirteenth, with a hell of a storm on the way.

Pearston town hall, Bundu shale meeting
There were queues to register before Bundu’s meeting in Pearston.

The meeting was to have started at 10am but began late, due to the sheer volume of people attending.

There had been drama even before the meeting started. We heard reports about a group of schoolchildren that had marched to the town hall with anti-fracking placards, but the children and their teacher were chased away by adults who said they were there to support jobs from Bundu.

Desert People and Rain

Pearston depends entirely on groundwater for its 8 000 citizens. These are people for whom water is so precious that they run outside to get wet when it rains.

Pearston main road, Karoo
Pearston children, elated by the storm, ran through the puddles on the main road.

Unlike many South African townships, where solar geysers are sprouting from roofs, Pearston’s township’s RDP houses are attached to JoJo rain tanks.

Inside the town hall, there must have been more than 120 people. Outside, a chilly, choppy wind with darkening skies over the white mother church. A few spits of rain fell and the children danced on the steps.

Pearston, Bundu meeting
Pearston children gathered outside the hall and watched the storm approaching.

It was clear from the start this was going to be a long meeting.

Inspired by the debacle of President Zuma’s State of the Nation Address the night before, several people raised “points of order, Mr Chairman” before chairman David De Waal could even get going.

Two were pleas to not cut people short during question time and the third related to the floodlights that were burning above Pearston’s township in the daytime, “during a national energy crisis”.

Chairman of proceedings Capetonian De Waal declared his independence from the issue and from all the communities involved, and disclosed that he was being paid by Golder for his time. (Hopefully Golder gave him a bonus, because De Waal’s patience would be severely tested that day.)

Karoo people, Pearston town hall
Bundu’s plans to explore for shale gas attracted a huge crowd.

Blessings and Church Street

De Waal first had to make a health and safety announcement. In any emergency, we were to “get out in an orderly fashion and meet in the middle of Church Street”.

In the platteland, you can make such pronouncements without a second thought. In a city – or a fracking boomtown – recommending the middle of a road as a meeting point would be insanity.

De Waal asked the crowd if it was the tradition in such meetings to open with a prayer.

There was a murmur of assent, and everyone lowered their heads as a man stood up near the back to lead 50 or more people in a wrenchingly beautiful Xhosa hymn, sung in perfect descant harmony, apparently unrehearsed.

Dr Brent Baxter, Golder
Dr Brent Baxter of Golder Associates Africa, project director on Bundu’s application.

The man prayed in Xhosa, then switched to Afrikaans, during which time he said: “We are grateful that Bundu Gas has come here to help us, even if it is just with a piece of bread. We pray that Bundu’s gas may come through.”

Thus blessed, the meeting began.

Dr Brent Baxter, project director of Golder Associates Africa gave a brief introduction to the legal and financial quandaries that their client Bundu and Challenger faced during the exploration process.

The lack of legal clarity on hydraulic fracturing “has put the developer in the difficult position of having to commit capital while there is no certainty. It is a risky scenario for an investor.”

Robert Willes, the Negotiator

With that he handed over to Robert Willes, the managing director of Challenger Energy, wearing an open-necked blue shirt.

Robert Willes’ profile on the Challenger Energy website shows he has 25 years in the oil, gas and energy fields, most of it with BP and much of it involved in negotiating the go-ahead for major projects.

He is a member of the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators.

Willes has worked in exotic locations around the world – among them, Kalimantan and West Papua in Indonesia.

He explained that the applicant was Bundu Gas & Oil, a company that was 95% owned by Challenger Energy. The other 5% was owned by South African Donald Ncube.

Robert Willes, Challenger
Robert Willes, MD of Challenger Energy in Australia.

The crowd sat patiently through all the technical details about what Challenger planned to do and who they were, including:

  • Challenger is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and the team has plenty of collective experience in shale gas drilling (in Texas) and mining generally;
  • Bundu wants to explore for shale gas over an area of 4 200 square kilometres and is interested in this specific area because a borehole drilled by Soekor in 1968 had a gas blowout – “probably from natural fractures charged with gas from shale”, according to Willes;
  • The first two phases of exploration would include desktop analysis of existing Soekor data, sampling and logging of groundwater quality and yield, and minor field work.
  • Phase 3, when possible exploratory boreholes were to be drilled, depended on whether the first two phases showed encouraging results.
  • No fracking was planned but this could be reconsidered if the legislation allowed it.

“After drilling and core sampling, we may even drop the project at this stage. Only if the results are still encouraging would we apply for a production licence. And there would be another round of consultation and permitting.

“We hope it wouldn’t all require the nine years of exploration available, but it is definitely a multi-year process.”

Challenger Energy
Challenger Managing Director Robert Willes (centre) with colleague Bill Bloking (left).

Jobs and Water

Willes had the full attention of the crowd when he spoke of jobs.

“In the first two stages, there will not be much field work, so jobs will be very limited. And even with drilling, the rig comes with its own rig crew. However we are committed to giving preference to hiring local people where needed and using local businesses that could supply us with various goods and services such as accommodation, storage and transport.”

“If the business is economically viable, then we can make a decision and hopefully set up a business that could last for decades and benefit people locally, regionally and nationally.”

Bundu meeting, Pearston
Francois Froelich, in yellow shirt, the former mayor of Pearston.

At question and answer time, one of the hands to go up was that of Francois Froelich, now 88 years old and a former mayor of Pearston.

“What happens if the two boreholes that supply water to the town, the townships and all the schools, fails? What happens if those are contaminated?

“Water runs in veins. In this area they run from west to east. What happens if these people strike one of these veins? Can you imagine what would happen to the people of Pearston?

“I think there has been a misunderstanding about job creation. The people here think they are going to get rich and that there will be permanent jobs. That is not going to happen.”

Great Expectations

Many applauded his statements, but the crowd at the back were heckling Froelich, saying “You’re already rich!”

They were quieted by chairman David de Waal, who promised everyone a chance to speak.

It was an issue raised many times by speakers.

Bundu meeting, Pearston
Liz Buisman of Pearston, centre with arms crossed. Behind her are Alex and Marianne Palmer of Cranemere farm, the site of Soekor’s borehole that had a gas blowout.

Liz Buisman of Graaff-Reinet said:

“I’d like to say it is wrong for oil and gas companies to create unrealistic expectations about jobs. We know that oil companies have been spreading information in the townships that has not been shared with everyone else.

“We regard that as immoral, to have created unrealistic expectations.

“What level of jobs will be available and will they only be for the more educated people?

“The only reason you will be working here is if you are going to be making a lot of money. You should spend it on the people of Pearston so that they are better educated enough to be part of your workforce.”

Robert Willes responded:

“I completely agree with you. This is an issue that is being taken up with the Shale Gas Forum which includes Bundu, Shell and Falcon.

“But on the issue of Bundu spread false information in the townships, that is not the case. I must push back on that issue.”

Daantjie Japhta, Khoi Inqua First People, Karoo
Daantjie Japhta, representing the First People of this area, on right, with meeting chairman David de Waal on left.

South Africa’s First People Against Fracking

Then it was the chance of Daantjie Japhta, also a former mayor (of Graaff-Reinet) and head of the Khoi’s Inqua Nation.

“In 2013, we decided that we as an indigenous people oppose this fracking. We are angry we have not been consulted.

“This is totally unacceptable, living in a democracy like South Africa, where Batho Pele should have top priority.

“There can be no drilling if the First Indigenous People have not been consulted.

“You are collecting data to do drilling and you want to frack. You are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Job creation will be low. People’s eyes must be opened.

“This is actually about job destruction. I know for a fact that farming is the main economy in the Karoo and tourism is the second highest. What will happen to the people who lose jobs because of fracking?”

Jersey Charlie, Pearston, Bundu Meeting
Jersey Charlie, ANC stalwart and religious leader in Pearston, stood up to support Bundu.

His views were challenged by ANC stalwart and religious leader Jersey Charlie:

“I was born here in Pearston in 1947 and grew up here. In 1985 I was arrested and sent to prison by the Apartheid government. I spent 6 years inside.

“We are suffering here. We are going to stand together and hope there is gas. The gas exploration must go on.

Peter Price, Bundu
Peter Price applied for Bundu’s right to explore for gas in 2009.

“The people who say that Bundu must not be here, those are the rich people.

“We say Bundu must come. Bundu, no one can stop you. The oil is there. The gas is there. The people must have all this. Stop pushing us down!”

Huge applause greeted his statements.

Mother Earth and Land Hunger

Princess Jean Burgess, chief of the Gonaqua Khoi people put up her hand.

Chairman De Waal, unfamiliar with the etiquette of dealing with such royalty, asked how she would like to be addressed.

“You can call me Chief,” said Burgess graciously.

Princess Jean Burgess, First People, Karoo
Princess Jean Burgess, chief of the Khoi’s Gonaqua people.

She spoke slowly and clearly in Afrikaans.

“To me it is clear that this issue is not about gas. It is about the fact that we do not possess land. We are poor. I myself am poor. I also don’t have a job.

“There will be no work created here. Just highly educated people will get something.

“The land issue is very sensitive. It is not just a case of private ownership of the land, but also speaks to the destruction of our culture, our language and our very being.”

“The gas is not going to fix this. As I understand it, there will be maybe three or four people who get work. At the most, ten or so.”

At her last statement there was loud dissent from the community members at the back of the hall.

Farm dam, Karoo, near Pearston
All conversations led back to water.

Burgess stood firm and called for the protection of the chairman, then continued:

“What I say is that we must look at the impact on Mother Earth. There is a spiritual aspect to all of this.

“If they break the rocks, then Mother Earth is raped, just as is happening all over this country to women and children.

“If we fully understand the process, we will also understand there is no work for us here.”

There were mutterings of disapproval from the back, accompanied by thunder outside and with that, the rain began bucketing down. A few farmers snuck outside to have a look.

Joey Dearling, First People, Karoo
Khoi Inqua headman Joey Dearling, in robe.

With the rain falling down, Headman Joey Dearling of the Khoi’s Inqua people stood up to add:

“We as people are dependent on our spring water. We know the feeling of our people and we are defending groundwater in the Karoo.

“Any interference with the groundwater can result in catastrophe. The impacts will be felt by hundreds and thousands of people. We see this as a huge risk.”

Mossgas and Beneficiation

A man in an ANC t-shirt who did not give his name said:

“There are many unemployed people here. Farms have been sold to create game reserves. If Bundu comes here, can you ensure that you will work the gas here in Pearston and not send it away?

“We want it to be here for our future, as they have done with Mossgas.”

Bundu meeting, Pearston
A man in an ANC t–shirt asked that the gas be beneficiated in Pearston.

Willes explained:

“At this stage we think this gas will be used for power generation. It is too early to know where that power generation would take place.

“Would it be like Mossgas? We don’t foresee that kind of development. We are not looking at a Mossgas here.

“There would be gas-fired power stations but where that will take place has still to be worked out. It is not something Bundu can determine.”

Councillor Mncedi Mali of the Blue Crane Route Municipality sought the middle ground:

Local municipality councillor Mncedi Mali, with chairman David de Waal (right).
Local municipality councillor Mncedi Mali, with chairman David de Waal (right).

“I’d just like to say that for some of us this rain is a sign of fortune.

“We are not going into this issue blindfolded. There is a desperation for jobs but we take comfort from the fact that Government will put the right measures in place and is doing independent studies.

There is a fear of the unknown here, but what are the solutions?

“In the beginning there will not be jobs, but we can take comfort from plans for a process where people will be trained as engineers to take part in future projects.

“We are in support of this and ask everyone to play a role and not just reject one another. Shale gas can work alongside farming activities.

“We must allow testing to take place.”

Pearston children, Karoo
A French documentary crew filmed Pearston’s children playing in the rain puddles.

Solar, Shale Gas and Sound

By now the downpour had completely overwhelmed the drainage capabilities of the main road, turning it into a brown river in minutes. The children danced and ran about in the rain like watersprites.

Inside the hall, the lights flickered on and off, and finally died. But at no stage did the sound system falter.

During Dr Baxter’s presentation, he had mentioned that three solar power parks were earmarked for the region, two very close to Pearston.

Ernest Pringle, Agri Eastern Cape
Ernest Pringle, head of Agri Eastern Cape.

Ernest Pringle, president of Agri-Eastern Cape, pointed out that South Africa, and the Karoo in particular, has substantial renewable energy resources.

“If the South African Government undertook to pay Independent Power Producers, we could put solar power on our farms and power the whole of South Africa at a fraction of the cost of their current plans, in a competitive and safe way.”

Applause met his statement.

Water and Fracking Waste

Pringle and many others spoke about the dangers to groundwater of Bundu’s activities.

Baxter said water was THE burning issue for most Karoo people.

“There are a lot of stakeholders who are concerned about what is driving the quality and quantity of water at high-altitude springs in the mountains, and any disturbance that could affect them. There is a 2 000 metre elevation from the lowest to the highest.”

Windpump, Karoo road
There is concern about what drives the flow and quality of groundwater in Bundu’s concession area, especially the high altitude springs.

In response to another question about what would happen to fracking wastewater, Baxter said that there were only two licenced hazardous waste facilities in the country, one near Johannesburg and the other near Cape Town.

At some stage, the shale gas producers would come together and a decision would have to be taken if another hazardous waste dump would be needed in the Karoo, he said.

Asked about how much water would be needed if they started fracking, and where they would get it, Baxter mentioned a possible pipeline of desalinated water from the coast among “a suite of possibilities”.

But he admitted sourcing the water for full production might be too high an expense.

“Bundu does not know if shale gas in the prospecting area is payable and what the economics might be. The water needed for production might kill the economics of shale gas.”

Jeanie le Roux, Treasure Karoo Action Group
Jeanie le Roux, of Treasure Karoo Action Group.

Jeanie le Roux of Treasure Karoo Action Group asked why Golder had noted the potential impact on groundwater would be low.

This query came in view of a drilling incident experienced by Challenger Energy in Texas (in which an aquifer was intersected,  fresh water poured out and the well was abandoned), as well as the Karoo’s so-called Skietfontein incident.

In 1968, Soekor was drilling at a farm called Skietfontein near Aberdeen when drilling equipment and drilling fluid was lost into a void at a depth of more than 2 400 metres.

Former Soekor employee Andre Els signed an affidavit saying identical chemicals were found in a farmer’s borehole 35km away six weeks later.

Challenger’s Bill Bloking, who was involved in the Texas drilling, declined to comment on the incident there.

Baxter only said:

“The claims from Andre Els are well documented. I’ve discussed it with a number of hydrogeologists including Eddie van Wyk (former groundwater expert at the Department of Water Affairs, now a hydrogeologist at Golder), and they all query that statement. The response from the experts has been that this is very hard to believe.”

Le Roux later noted that TKAG had consulted other groundwater experts, who agreed that the incident described by Andre Els was possible.

Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and Solar

Daantjie Japhta, the Inqua chief, led the conversation back to BEE.

“I note that you have 5% local empowerment vs 95% Australian ownership.

“This is nonsense. It should be 71% local ownership vs 29% foreign. There is no honesty in this process. There is something wrong.

“People think they will get trained to be part of drilling, but there are already people being trained at NMMU. And the drilling rig has its own drilling team.

“Will you take the holy sites of the Khoi Khoi people into account? We are one nation of many cultures.

“This rain is the weeping of the earth over your plans of fracking and the rape of your drilling operations.

“But we want to compliment Agri-EC on their proposal to put sun energy on farms. God created the sun. That is the way we should go. Clean energy that does not destroy our motherland.

“Here is our solution for the Eastern Cape.”

* A statement by TKAG’s Jeanie le Roux has been clarified in this updated version.

Daantjie Japhta, Karoo First People
Daantjie Japhta queried Challenger’s commitment to Black Economic Empowerment and endorsed solar power in the Karoo.

16 thoughts on “Karoo Fracking: A Perfect Storm over Pearston

  1. Lorene says:

    I saw the school kids demonstrating outside the town hall. We were told they were kids from school eco-clubs who were against the environmental risks of fracking. The rather aggressive adults were shouting at the kids, “what will you eat?”, and the kids replied, “what will you drink.” At least they are speaking up for their future. Was horrible to see them shouted at, and sworn at by various adults.

  2. glynis goyns says:

    The people are speaking. Their voices deserve to be heard. Don’t frack with our Karoo! Our land is precious, our water essential for life.

    • Ludwig Churr says:

      The committee must make sure that the people’s voices are heard in Parliament.

      I hope that the people will be invited to the Parliamentary committee that will give the go/no go stamp of approval/disapproval to the fracking question.

    • Ayala katz says:

      I (Ayala Katz) and my friend Senait Mekkonen will be walking into Subterrafuge, the anti-fracking sculpture on the AfrikaBurn site in the Tankwa Karoo. We are putting our feet where our hearts are and walking 250km as part of the Tankwa Camino and arriving at the sculpture on the 7th April 2015. It is our way of blessing the beloved Karoo from the fracking!

  3. Pingback: The End of Karoo Fracking? | Charge Energy - Inspiring Greener Living

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