Daryl Ilbury

Fracking – it’s not just about the economy, stupid

In Eish!, Politics, Science on September 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

Billy-Bob suspected his borehole had tapped into some methane reserves

Every so often an issue takes root in the South African national psyche that demands intense debate, at the very least some earnest navel-gazing. Invariably such an issue is political in nature, which is not surprising given the fractious intensity of our political heritage. But then occasionally, perhaps a little too infrequently, such an issue emerges from my neck of the woods – science – and sometimes, just sometimes, it opens up a wealth of opportunities for diverse research and analysis.

South Africa’s successful bid to co-host the SKA project is, unfortunately, not such an issue; the reason being is that its main focus is on astronomy; and whereas gazing back in time through the stars in the hope of discovering the origins of the universe may give astrophysicists a wonderful tingling sensation in their loins, it’s way out of the conceptual reach of most people.

But there is something else scientific that is inviting all manner of attention, a lot of it very emotional: hydraulic fracturing, or to use its more common name – fracking. For most people aware of fracking, it has two seemingly incongruent perspectives – one economical, the other environmental.

According to a Shell-sponsored Econometrix assessment, fracking in South Africa has the capacity to secure access to 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas; create 704 000 jobs; inject billions of Rands into the national economy and completely change this country’s energy profile. Volumes of estimated data has been submitted as proof.

According to environmentalists, wide-scale fracking in the Karoo (under which most of the South African shale gas reserves are situated) will both release tonnes of toxic hydrocarbons into the air and contaminate groundwater. They have as their proof their own data, as well as some video clips of tap water bursting into flames.

However, to summarise the fracking debate as essentially an economics versus environmental divide is to miss the opportunity for a broader discourse around the myriad avenues for examination it throws up.

The first being politics. South African President Jacob Zuma is banking his re-election on a ‘second transition’ – the successful handover of economic ownership to, at least, the new elite. Mining is in his sights. Yet fracking is a new, and to date untapped, development; and, as yet, no company has secured the rights to prospect for the shale gas reserves. It therefore presents a unique opportunity for the realisation of the ANC’s reinvigorated political manifesto.

The second is around the associated issues of land ownership and mineral rights. According to the forward of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 2002, mineral wealth is recognised as a national asset, a common heritage that belongs to all South Africans. As such, the state is the appointed custodian of all mineral wealth. This doesn’t seem to be worth debating when our current gas reserves are offshore and largely inaccessible, but the shale gas reserves in South Africa are sitting under privately owned, dry, land. You can drive there.

This could become an issue for debate, because in the United States the rights to gas reserves – unless explicitly separated by a deed – are owned by the surface landowner. What sits below their land is theirs to sell.

The third avenue for analysis that has emerged from fracking is around the clash of media paradigms. From the late 19th century through to the dying days of apartheid, the prospects and fortunes of the mining industry in South Africa were inextricably linked to those who controlled the media. As such, if it ever were examined, mining would be the topic of disciplined journalists who, at best, would execute their craft to balance perspective, but typically operated under undue pressure from above. It was not uncommon for members of the boards of mining houses to also serve on the boards of media groups or the SABC.

However, things have changed. Fracking has come at a time when it falls under the spotlight of new media, a largely democratised force of citizen journalism that is accountable only to the vagaries of public opinion. Individuals and environmental lobby groups have dedicated followers and readers, in numbers that elude many mainstream media; and their writing is not obliged to follow any journalistic doctrine. It is often written with deeply emotional, sometimes even hysterical, overtones, and is very successful in putting pressure on lawmakers – the former reserve of powerful corporate donors and mainstream media executives.

As a result, opposition to fracking in the US and South Africa, has become something of a cause célèbre, and one that is driven by a small, but very vocal band of activists who are adroit with the emotional power of social media. On the other side of the court of public opinion, the voice of pro-fracking has ostensibly sought support from reams of research, buried deep within academic journals, largely out of the reach of most citizens.

Fracking has also forced an examination of social values and issues of national identity. Mining beats at the very heart of our economy and our socio-political construct. It is a critical part of our historical heritage. To drill for gas in order to boost national wealth and ensure energy security is simply an extension of our economic psyche. However, wide open spaces and unspoilt natural vistas are also what define the South African spirit; and there are few South Africans who would be comfortable with the image of a wild Karoo landscape littered with drilling rigs.

There’s even interest in fracking from a particularly niched avenue of research:  linguistics, specifically semantics. ‘Fracking’ is a new term, and therefore still struggling to find some foothold of significance for most people. How we structure meaning around a new phrase at the heart of a controversial social issue is, for linguists, like the arrival of a comet – rare and spectacular to observe.

It is therefore unfortunate that the term ‘fracking’ was the brainchild of someone who clearly didn’t consider bouncing it off anyone in marketing. If they had, they would have been told that to give currency to an invasive form of drilling for gas that involves explosives to open up fissures in rock, it’s not a good idea to use a term that sounds uncomfortably close to a vulgar term for an act of physical intimacy. Calling it ‘Daisy-chain drilling’ would have been a lot less likely to attract negative attention!

And finally, fracking has presented us with the necessity to discuss the morality of consumerism: do energy consumers have the right to complain about the high cost of energy provision, and then also complain when energy providers attempt to mitigate such costs by securing other sources of energy?

No, fracking is not just about the economy; neither is it just about the environment. It is far more than that. It is an opportunity for us to engage and debate with each other outside of the regular scope of politics. It is also a mine of avenues for analysis across diverse disciplines.

But more importantly it should be embraced as one of those rare occasions when public consciousness invites itself into that relatively untapped realm of discovery: science.

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