Time on Shale Gas

Another sensible article on shale gas, its value in the energy demands of the modern world and the environmental dangers of its extraction? Surely not.

But yes, it is.

Bryan Walsh gives us a few thousand words on the natural gas boom (poor choice of word, I guess), the need for alternative energy sources, the benefits and the difficulties that it has brought to the communities where drilling is taking place and the the awkward balancing act between powering and protecting our lifestyles.

Along with the Scientific American article I pointed to here, this has to rate as one of the most balanced pieces of reporting I have read on this often hyped and unnecessarily emotive subject.
Walsh takes in both sides and, importantly, doesn’t conclude by coming down on either. After all, that’s not for a journalist to do: that’s the politicians’ decision based on the evidence set down before them.

And, once again, I must stress that I am not fighting for the oil companies here – merely for people to have all the information laid out objectively in front of them before they choose sides in this debate.

“The gas is out there, and it can be accessed,” says Dean Oskvig, president and CEO of Black & Veatch’s energy business. “But we do need to solve the environmental issues surrounding that extraction.”

If that can be done right, shale gas really could change the way we use energy for the better. But even if it does, the industry will still fundamentally remake parts of the U.S., and of the world, in ways we won’t always like. But that’s the price of extreme energy, and it’s one we’ll continue to pay until we can curb our hunger for fossil fuels or find a cheap, reliable and clean alternative to them.

Opponents of fracking will pay heed to the 1,218 violations issued the Pennsylvanian Department of Environment “for offences ranging from littering to spills on oil sites” last year, but what this article emphasised to me was that fracking is as safe as any other industrial process if it is done properly. The vast majority of issues around pollution stem not from wells exploding or aquifers being polluted (a “huge concern” for the Karoo groups, but as Walsh mentions, there are actually no proven instances of the latter), but from the mismanagement of waste water. That such a simple part of such a complex process can be the cause of so many problems is inexcusable, but it should also be easy to remedy.

Walsh also compares the localised pollution from fracking with the more generalised pollution of coal-powered electricity generation: a methodology which is especially relevant while the problems at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant continue.

The economic benefits are also taken into account – from both sides. Obviously, while there is profit for the comapnies doing the drilling (otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it, durr) there have been both positive and negative economic effects on local communities:

“I think it’s been a good thing overall,” says John Sullivan, a commissioner for Bradford County. “But I just wish we could keep the economic benefit and minimize everything else.”

As Walsh says: “Good luck with that”.

Sullivan’s pipe dream is an ironic parallel to those who feel that we can produce enough energy through renewable sources such as wind and solar to bypass the need for fracking – either here in SA or anywhere else in the world. Yes, of course, I agree that that would be the ideal solution, but it really isn’t possible given the demands of our society. And yes, of course, I agree that it would be ideal if we could radically alter those demands, but as Eskom’s call for saving electricity back in 2008 proves, you’re smoking your socks (an environmentally damaging activity, incidentally) if you think that’s going to happen, as well.

Anyway – despite Time’s horrible habits of linking to other articles in big red letters every two lines, putting adverts everywhere and breaking it up into five pages – this is an informative article which weighs up both sides of the fracking debate and is well worth a read, either as a first introduction to the subject or for those seeking more facts and figures and further questions posed by our need for alternative energy sources.

Do some fracking reading

I generally have no issue with people having opinions.

The only issue that I occasionally have is when those opinions are poorly considered. When people have simply chosen one side of an argument to be on simply because they think it’s the cool side to be on or because they have read or been told something, somewhere that suggests that perhaps the other side of the argument is wrong. I’m not necessarily saying that they are not allowed to do that, but when they are unable to back up their stance with some reasonable rational, they lose my respect and with it, my support.

Thou shall think for yourselves

Because the environment is such an emotive issue (you only have to look at the hysterical reactions to a tongue-in-cheek blog post about whales), there tends to be only one side that these poorly-read individuals come down upon. And that’s because it is deeply uncool to not automatically and vehemently oppose anything that may remotely harm the environment.
Yep. Apparently, no matter where you get your “facts” from, if they support “the environment”, then they must be indisputably correct.

I am, therefore, deeply uncool for even considering that the plans to consider starting exploratory work in the Karoo to consider whether there are shale gas reserves there which are worth considering, could be considered, in any way shape or form, to be a good idea.

Not that I am saying that they are a good idea, of course. Because before I began this post, I felt that I probably didn’t actually have enough knowledge or information on the technicalities of the “fracking” process to commit myself. So here I’m really not arguing for Shell et al here; I’m arguing against those who are arguing against Shell et al just because they automatically assume that Shell et al are bad people intent on destroying the Karoo.

I’m not the only one calling for a little forethought though, thank goodness. Moneyweb’s David Carte has stuck his head above the metaphorical parapet and into the direct line of fire of the full-time bunnyhuggers and their kneejerk, bandwagon-jumping associates with a piece emphasising something as radical as er… the need for consideration instead of immediate condemnation of the exploratory plans:

The moral of the story is that the project should be assessed coolly and rationally and we should beware of hot heads, scare mongers and people with vested interests.

Carte cites SA’s need for lower cost, cleaner energy and addresses some of the dichotomies that exist in people’s thoughts of the Karoo as a protected area with reference to the planned SKA project there. He also compares the alleged “vast” water usage in fracking with that of Eskom (6 million litres vs 300 billion litres). Yet because he chooses to quote actual Shell executives rather than biased (and often hysterical) green-leaning or anti-corporate websites, he is accused in the comments of writing “a PR piece for Shell”.
As I said, it’s not nice to be seen to apparently support something that has the possibility of harming the environment, even when you state perfectly logic reason for your statements.

Of course, we all drive cars. We all use petrol and petroleum products. We all use electricity and we all complain bitterly about the price increases that we’ve seen in the past. So there’s a certain amount of NIMBYism and hypocrisy in the complaints of potential environmental damage.
And you can add billionaire Johann Rupert to the hypocritical throng. Quite how a man whose $3.8billion fortune was based on the sales of cigarettes can protest about the potential risk of carcinogen exposure is beyond me.

Those calling (usually in CAPITAL LETTERS and with plenty of punctuation!!!!!!!!!!) for us all to Boycott Shell!!!!!!! are asking a lot of the apathetic South African public. Not everyone would agree with the reasoning behind the boycott nor with the method of protest. And even if, by some twist of fate the remainder were actually to turn away from Shell’s forecourts in SA, it would only be a drop in the ocean for them (perhaps a poor analogy, given BP’s recent trials and tribulations).

Lewis Pugh’s desperately emotional speech at last night’s Cape Town meeting in Newlands, telling us of the dreams of Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Oliver Tambo was pitifully theatrical and contained these lines:

If we damage our limited water supply – and fracking will do just that – we will have conflict again in South Africa.
Fellow South Africans, we have had enough conflict in this land – now is the time for peace.

Wait. What?
Firstly – again – where is your evidence that “fracking will do just that”? Because now having read around the subject fairly widely, I have yet to find objective evidence that this is the case. Certainly, there have been a few instances where fracking has damaged the environment, but then equally, there have been many thousands of cases where it hasn’t. So why the certainty over the damage to the Karoo?
And then the conflict thing: is there really any way that the suggestion that by allowing these exploratory operations we will return to the troubles of the apartheid era can be described as anything more than shameful scare-mongering?

For a man with a law degree from UCT & Cambridge, it’s utterly pathetic. It’s a speech appealing to the very lowest common denominator of the audience. It’s full of wonderful soundbites but has nothing of substance. It would be laughed out of any court of law – institutions based on fact, logic and reason and not on hearsay, misinformation and emotion. However, for the purpose of generating support for his cause – for adding more unthinking sheep to the Karoo flock – it’s perfect.
And of course it will be (and already has been) widely circulated and celebrated by those very people that I am complaining about here.
On twitter, I see “South Africans, you HAVE to read @LewisPugh’s speech about Shell tonight. It’s really important.” and on facebook: “amazing speech by Louis Pugh at antifracking meeting …standing ovation.” (That one evidently didn’t even know where she was this evening. Shame.)

I recognise that I’m unlikely to change the general consensus on this matter. And even if I did, there would be something else tomorrow: dolphins, perhaps or something about rhinos and then we’d have to go through the whole thing again.

All I’m asking is that people to look at both sides of any argument – especially those where emotions run high – before making up their minds.
Read around the issue, check your sources, strain for objectivity.
Maybe you’ll find something that will make you think again; make you change direction instead of simply trotting after the other sheep in the flock.
And if you don’t see things differently when you’ve considered the other viewpoint(s), well just that’s fine as well and you’ll be able to argue your case far more logically and coherently, meaning that you stand more chance of making a difference.

And isn’t that what you want to do?

UPDATE: Please also see my follow-up post on this subject.