By Adam Welz
He sure has staying power, that Ivo Vegter, the Daily Maverick’s go-to columnist on all things environmental. Since back in the days of the printed Maverick magazine, when he still called himself Igo, he’s had it in for the blerrie greenies and the blerrie commies.
Ivo trades in controversy, as in, jirre, that oke only likes to cause kak, hey. He used to say that he’d like to invest in wind turbines and drive a Hummer just to piss off the greenies and everyone else equally. Nowadays the little blurb underneath his impassive visage just says “He is always right”, which should piss off a few more.
Most of the controversial okes out there, shit-stirring columnists and journalists, are crusading for the little guy, sticking it to the billionaire bankers, the Zumas and suchlike. They dig nothing more than giving a huge transmoral corporation a sharp, verbally delivered snotklap.
Ivo is so dik controversial that he does fully the opposite. Find the biggest, gnarliest corporate interest you can think of and Ivo’s gonna be out there on a long and perilous limb, agitating for it. He’s like: “The little guy gets way too much airtime! I’m gonna give some lurve to The Man!”
Among Ivo’s recent causes are mega agribusiness – genetically-modified foods, in particular – and fossil fuels like natural gas. Shell is leading the charge to frack in the Karoo. In other words, to use new, so-called “unconventional” drilling techniques to get at what they hope will be a bonanza of natural gas trapped in very deep shale. Ivo’s new greenie-bashing book, Extreme Environment, has three chapters on it.
|Fractious Drilling operations in Jonah Field, Wyoming, USA. Shell has said that it could drill up to 115,000 gas wells in South Africa (which does not include the wells of other companies).|
The most popular fracking technique at the moment is called “large volume, slick water, horizontal hydraulic fracturing”.
Developed in the USA, fracking’s homeland, it involves drilling deep down into the shale, turning your drill head 90 degrees to make a kilometres-long horizontal channel through it, and then, with a few truckloads of serious machinery, forcing millions of litres of “fracking fluid” and specially-selected sand down the whole shebang under massive pressure. Fracking fluid is water with patented gas company chemical secret sauce added. When forced down a well and into the shale rock, it makes tiny cracks in the rock. These cracks are held open by the sand grains you’ve sent down the pipe in the mix.
Gas, held for millennia in the shale, diffuses into the cracks and up the well and, voila, you have fuel for your Cadac skottelbraai – at least for a while, because gas wells normally have to be “stimulated”, or re-fracked every few years to keep the methane coming up.
Many Karoo-dwellers are worried about fracking because many gas company secret sauces contain known cancer-causing chemicals.
Since much of the Karoo is dependent on groundwater – that is, after all, what those iconic windmills pump – any cross-contamination between fracked wells and underground aquifers could be a disaster.
Gas wells in the Karoo could be over 5km deep – far deeper than most farmers’ boreholes – and might pass right through freshwater aquifers.
One crack in a well casing could be the end of the whole dorp.
There are also questions about where to source the water to frack the wells in this dry area. A single well stimulation can consume 20 to 24 million litres. And what to do with the contaminated “flowback” after the dirty deed is done? A lot of the frack fluid forced down the well flows back up with the first burst of gas, even more saturated with toxins than when it went down.
Ivo reckons the Karoo-ites are getting their broekies in a koek about nothing. (He’s due to address the Prince Albert Leesfees from November 9 to 11, which should get blood pressures up.)
“Even in Texas”, he says in a recent Daily Maverick column, “shale gas uses only 1.7% of the available water”. “To put ‘millions of litres’ into perspective,” he continues, “half a percent of the capacity of the Vaal Dam is enough to frack 6,000 wells, which is around the upper limit of the number of wells the entire Karoo might eventually accommodate.”
First, it’s unclear what Texas has to do with the Karoo. Maybe Ivo’s watched too many Road Runner cartoons and thinks Texas is all sagebrush and cacti, as in dry like the Karoo. He’s obviously never been to the north-east Texas piney woods, where Spanish moss hangs thick from the trees and beavers splash around in the vast swamps of Caddo Lake. Houston has more than five times the average annual rainfall of Beaufort West.
Second, how he arrives at 6,000 as the maximum number of gas wells for the Karoo is a mystery. Gas well density varies enormously depending on the drilling strategy used and the nature of the gas resource, and South Africa’s gas resource estimates are almost purely theoretical, because comprehensive exploration drilling hasn’t been done yet.
The gas-containing rock could cover a larger area than what we call the Karoo, or it could be a dud for the drillers. We could hit 6,000 wells – or a helluva lot more.
Texas – since Ivo brought it up – has just more than half the land area of South Africa and over 76,000 gas-producing wells as of 2007, according to the US Department of Energy. Shell has been quoted as saying they could drill up to 115,000 gas wells in South Africa (this does not include other companies’ wells).
Even if fracking all the gas wells in South Africa were only to take a tiny percentage of the Vaal Dam’s capacity – which, don’t forget, is still billions of litres – how the heck do you get the water from there to the wellhead?
In the US, it’s done by truck – somewhere in the region of 800-plus truckloads of equipment, fresh water and flowback waste per well by various estimates, although this varies by location and well type.
Many people in the Karoo, mindful of the expensive mess trucks have already made of our roads, are worried at the prospect of hundreds of thousands of truck trips through their towns.
Ivo says, hey, no problem, “just impose a usage fee”. One wonders where he’s been hiding during the e-tolling fracas, or how he thinks that corporations who are accustomed to using public roads, gratis, would agree to paying the real cost of the damage they cause.
As for the toxic flowback water and how to clean it, well, Ivo tells us that the industry “has developed mobile water treatment units designed especially to deal with fracking flowback”.
What he doesn’t say is that these units are expensive, not widely used, and merely clean the flowback enough to use it to frack another well, not to drinkable standards.
The supposedly regulated fracking industry in the US has a tendency to cut corners; in Pennsylvania, as the New York Times revealed, frackers routinely sent flowback laced with radioactive uranium to normal sewage plants that were not equipped to clean it. The uranium was then discharged into rivers that supplied drinking water to towns downstream.
Ivo pooh-poohs all this talk of water contamination. “A small risk of localised pollution is a manageable problem”, he opines. He might be right, if the state was actually interested in managing the problem, which in today’s South Africa is manifestly not the case.
In 2010, I filmed over 100 million litres a day of contaminated mine water being illegally discharged into the internationally-protected Marievale wetland from the Grootvlei mine, east of Joburg.
My footage was broadcast on Carte Blanche. Dozens of news stories reported the pollution. But it still went on for months. The government did nothing effective to stop it and no-one has yet been prosecuted for this blatant infringement of a suite of water, mining and environmental laws.
Does Ivo really think that they’ll keep the fracking industry in line? Especially if – as has been claimed by the DA and which has not been refuted – the ANC has a stake in Shell via Thebe Investments?
As for concerns that the frackers will destroy tourism in the Karoo, Ivo assures his readers that “completed wellheads are no more conspicuous than a typical farm dam and windmill. A few thousand shale gas wells will all but vanish in the barren vastness that is the Great Karoo”.
Leaving aside that one cliché-bound writer’s “barren vastness” is another dollar-spending tourist’s amazing, naturally-diverse landscape, it seems to have slipped Ivo’s mind that once a wellhead is completed, you have to take the gas somewhere, as in, you need a pipeline.
Pipelines need trenches, roads alongside them, compressor stations, powerlines and other infrastructure. Fly over a serious gas field someplace like west Texas or Pennsylvania, as I have, and you’ll see that a fracked landscape is an industrialised landscape, ecologically fragmented and extraordinarily ugly.
The Great Karoo is big, but Shell has applied for gas exploration leases covering 9 million hectares – more than four times the area of the Kruger National Park. Other companies have applied for millions more. As they say in Texas, “go figure”.
Ivo is a well-known climate-change denialist. The language he uses and the ideas he spouts echo American right-wing, fossil fuel industry-funded websites and PR guidebooks.
He comes across like a contemporary shill, well acquainted with the idea that you don’t have to win a debate, you just have to create the appearance of one. The cigarette lobbyists long ago figured out that they didn’t have to prove that smoking didn’t cause cancer, they just had to sustain a discussion about whether it did.
This significantly slowed the passage of laws to restrict smoking. “Facts”, for this type of PR guy, aren’t there to prove your point, they’re merely there to slow the opposition down. Indeed, if your “facts” are wrong, so much the better, because your opposition wastes time correcting them instead of putting their own argument forward.
Ivo says he’s independent, that he’s not a member of any political organisation, advocacy group, or think tank.
I have no evidence that he’s taken money or favours from the frackers, but, as they sometimes say in the bar at the Royal Hotel, “if it walks like a Hadeda and waa-waas like a Hadeda…” well, whatever.
I hope the gas companies reward him handsomely for his sophomoric emissions. It seems unfair for them not to.
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