Treasure the Karoo pulls apart Shell’s environmental plans

The Treasure the Karoo Action Group, which is facilitating civil society’s objection to Shell Exploration Company’s application to search for shale gas in the Karoo, called on the authorities for an immediate halt to any such plans, not only by Shell but by any other organisation seeking similar authorisation.

This is based on a critical review of Shell’s 2 000 page draft environmental management plan (the EMP), which was released for public scrutiny in March.

“This review lays waste to Shell’s draft EMP,” says Jonathan Deal, national spokesman for the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG). “I don’t think there is a defence [for fracking].”

TKAG is not only looking to halt Shell’s application, but all future fracking applications. “There are many mining companies greedily eyeing the Karoo’s gas reserves,” he says. “If Shell was to step aside, others would fill its shoes. We must stop this technology in its tracks.”

The review was compiled by Dr Luke Havemann, of Havemann Inc, a firm of energy attorneys based in Cape Town; Adv Jan Glazewski, professor in the Institute of Marine & Environmental Law, UCT and Susie Brownlie, an environmental consultant.

They obtained specialist input from another 18 experts.  These included groundwater and water resource specialists as well as experts in public health, socio-economics, palaeontology, astronomy, biodiversity and energy policy.

Their decision to call for a halt to the application to explore was based on a number of concerns. However, the over arching concern relates to the lack of reliable and sufficient information about fracking internationally, and in Shell’s draft environmental management plan (EMP) in particular. “We believe that the document is not lawful, reasonable or procedurally fair,” says Havemann. “It is inadequate, making a rational and reasoned decision almost impossible.

Key concerns raised

“We do not have a drop of water to spare in SA, yet Shell’s environmental plan is vague about the source of the water,” he says. It appears that Shell will need anything between 7.2m litres of water and 144m litres of water in its exploration process.

Aside from issues of water scarcity, fracking raises issues of water quality and thus public health. That is because potentially toxic chemicals and other materials are introduced to hold the ‘fractures’ open, potentially contaminating surface water and groundwater.

The document also argues that Shell’s proposal runs counter to a number of provisions held in SA’s environmental legislation, in particular those relating to sustainable development, spelt out in the National Environmental Management Act.

The potential negative effects of fracking on the “sense of place” of the Karoo, with its growing agriculture and tourism sectors, rural livelihoods, and the drive for more equitable development is also noted.

“Fracking, with a view to ultimate shale gas development, may not be the optimal or sustainable land use for the unique Karoo region,” says Deal. “But no comparative evaluation with other land-use options – including alternative energy generation – has been undertaken for the area.”

The review argues that the application also runs counter to the constitution. It lists five areas where constitutional rights may be trodden upon, in particular that which guarantees all South Africans the right to sufficient water. “I never thought that in SA we would have this debate,” says environmental activist and cold water swimmer, Lewis Pugh. “Which is more important – gas or water?”

Some of the arguments contained in TKAG’s review – submitted on Tuesday to the President’s Office at Tuynhuys – go beyond the ambit of what the Department of Energy would consider in an ordinary application for exploration. Deal argues that because fracking is an unprecedented activity in SA and because a policy vacuum exists in relation to the exploitation of shale gas, Shell’s application cannot be considered in a narrow context.

“This is an application that needs to go all the way to the top,” he says. “Shell’s present application for exploration rights should not be considered in isolation but should be seen in the context of the intended outcome, namely future shale gas development, the impact it could have on the environment and on the people who live in that environment.”

SA is not alone in considering these issues. In the US a number of states have placed moratoriums on fracking while the federal government completes its environmental study on the subject. Others have banned it outright. The UK government has recommended further investigation while the Canadian and French governments have also imposed a moratorium on fracking.

Should TGAG not succeed in its bid, it proposes a long-term moratorium be placed on fracking. “We need to investigate all the risks and potential consequences, particularly in the case of water resources and public health,” says Havemann. “There is local and international context for this research.”

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