Day 624 – Protecting the environment?

I know. I know I wrote this and I know got a lot of abuse. I know it would be better if we could get away without using fossil fuels (I even said that in the post). But we don’t have that luxury yet. So this may come across as somewhat hypocritical, but while we’re trying to get our ducks in a row, we’re topping endangered species, despite numerous warnings that this would happen and – more worryingly – despite mitigation measures being put in place to prevent it happening. And that didn’t happen when previous seismic surveys were carried out off the coast of SA.

So there is a difference.

These are amazing birds, silently gliding just a couple of metres over the fynbos while hunting. There is a pair that live near the Southernmost Point of Africa, and I love to watch their incredible agility in the wind there as they seek out mice or a mongoose or two for lunch.

But yes, when two male Black Harriers from a population of just 1000 (that’s 1000 in total, not 1000 males) die in 24 hours – and we only know about it because they were both tagged – something is very wrong.

How many untagged others were killed on the same day? And how many the day before that?

One sadly killed while roosting in a cereal field. And one killed by a wind turbine.

I recognise the need for renewable energy. I hate looking at wind turbines, but I respect the incredible engineering that goes into making a wind farm work. I am, however, getting a bit pissed off at them being put in areas like Caledon and Bredasdorp which are known as areas in which populations of endangered birds live (Blue Cranes and Black Harriers, for example).

Thankfully, there is also precedent for them not being put in environmentally sensitive areas, but that didn’t help the guy above, did it? Because the way that the turbine companies get around that sort of restriction is by employing mitigation measures:

The wind farm is the first to run a shutdown-on-demand programme – where observers monitor bird movement around the wind turbines seven days a week, and can radio-in to instruct a specific turbine’s shutdown should a priority species, including a Black Harrier fly close to a turbine. Turbines are shut down for other red data species including Martial Eagles and Cape Vultures (from Potberg).

But those measures clearly didn’t help the guy above either. And 179 shutdowns in just over 300 days of operation suggests to me that it’s not just the mitigation measures that are wrong (because it’s likely they have failed numerous times with untagged birds): it’s the siting of the wind farm.
But why should we care about windfarms being put in an area where endangered Black Harriers live? Well:

Unpublished modelling data from Dr Rob Simmons and Dr Francisco Cervantes Peralta of the University of Cape Town has found that if three adult Black Harriers are killed every year by wind turbines around South Africa, the species will be extinct in 100 years. Should five birds be killed by turbines per year, then Black Harriers will be extinct in just 75 years.

Of course, they were looking at wind turbines, but nature doesn’t care how the birds die, so both of those deaths recorded above will count towards Black Harriers dying out sooner. And again, we only know about these ones because they were tagged and tracked. We don’t know if they were the only ones to be killed yesterday or if there were 1, 2 or 3 others. And those estimates on extinction above are based on deaths per year.

So where is the outrage like we saw for the Shell thing? Where are the hashtags, the protests, the calls to boycott, the angry surfers on Muizenberg beach? Because you surely can’t ignore the bad side of renewable energy simply because it’s renewable energy, can you?

Can you?

Day 609 – On Shell

Here’s the story.

Right. Let’s just get my position out in the open at the start, shall we?

1. I appreciate the need to move away from fossil fuels.
2. I would love to have a simple, straightforward, economically viable way to not use fossil fuels anymore.
3. I would rather that Shell (or anyone else) were not doing seismic testing in the waters around South Africa.


We all use fossil fuels every day here in SA.
Our electricity here comes (when it comes) – overwhelmingly – from coal, diesel and gas.
Our cars use petrol, and if they did use electricity, then that electricity would come – overwhelmingly – from coal, diesel and gas.
Eskom chucks out about 18 million tons of CO2 each and every month.

We need to understand that the vast majority of this country has no choice but to use dirty fuels to live their lives. It would be great to change, but we can’t just switch that off: our power grid doesn’t work full stop, let alone work with clean or renewable sources of energy.
And we should certainly be trying to step away from fossil fuels, but as you are flinging around your hashtags and basking in the righteousness of your slacktivism, please remember that we need to get our energy and electricity from somewhere: someone has to provide it.

And why shouldn’t that be Shell? How do their seismic surveys and oil drilling habits differ from whoever’s powering your car today, as you “#BoycottShell” and go to Engen or Sasol or BP?

Do you know? Do you care? Or is it just about jumping on a conveniently passing (hopefully hybrid-powered?) bandwagon?

And if you are going to pop online and tell us how to live our lives, and which dirty oil company we should use over which other (I love the “tip the pump attendants” idea, by the way, lol!), then at least think before you post.

After all, nothing quite says “Leave our oceans alone” or #SaveOurOceans like a “cleverly” altered corporate logo and is that a picture of… er… a local sewage outflow…


Presumably you are boycotting your toilet as well, then? How’s that going for you?

Look, I’m not saying that a seismic survey off the East Coast is a good thing – I’d much rather it wasn’t happening, but as I noted above, that’s not really a tenable option right now.

But I have to say that this exceptionalism, hyperbole and misinformation around this one issue when numerous such surveys have happened around SA before and we’re all still here? Well, it’s weird, it’s misplaced, and it’s rather hypocritical given that we are all using products and services that rely on oil and gas each and every day.

Christine’s Brilliant Idea

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The letters pages of local newspapers are the places to go if you want something to blog about. This morning, I didn’t particularly want something to blog about, but because I read the letters page of a local newspaper, I now have something to blog about. That thing is a letter from Christine Durell (no relation) from Montagu – and most specifically her brilliant idea.

Christine has written an open letter to Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, the President of the Republic of South Africa, about Shell and their plans to explore for natural gas in the Karoo (see this blog and every bunnyhugger (sorry) site in SA, ad nauseum). JZ probably won’t read her letter, because he’s flying to China today and they’re not big on people writing letters to the media in China.

Anyway, Ladies and Gentlespoons; without further ado, I give you Christine Durell (no relation)!
[smattering of applause from assembled readers]

Dear Mr Zuma,

The more I hear and read about the diabolical things Shell has planned for our beloved Karoo, the more worrisome it becomes.

If I might just interject here, Christine?
Sorry – that was lovely so far: passionate, full of emotion, lovely.

I can’t help but notice, though, that you used the word “diabolical” there, after the latin root diabolus, “pertaining to, of, or characteristic of the Devil; Satanic”. Do you really mean this? It begs questions regarding the things you’ve heard and read.
What Satanic plans do you think Shell have in mind, exactly? Sacrificing virgins within a pentacle? Calling forth the demons of Hades and then asking them if they smelt any methane on the way up? Because I thought that the exploratory work in question was more about digging a few holes and having a quick look around 6km down. It sounds like you might have Shell confused with Hell.
Or… something.

Not only the process itself, but the fact that our country could be sold piecemeal to the highest bidder for a filthy short-term project which will make some people very rich indeed, is worrying.

Sorry, Christine. Me again. Are you perhaps suggesting that you would be appeased if we sold our country piecemeal to one of the lower bidders, thus making some people slightly less rich? Would that cause you less worry? I’m just asking because I can’t help but think that your approach would cause chaos in the property and general retail sectors. Have you considered this rather concerning side-effect?

It would be my dearest wish that our president could just stand up, be a man…

Hang on a sec, Chrissy love. You’re talking about a bloke who has 3 wives, 2 ex-wives, 20 kids and sings about wanting his machine gun. I think he’s “man” enough already thank you very much.

…and be remembered as the best president this country would ever have had, by just saying: “No.”

So, putting this in perspective, Christine, you think that if Jacob Zuma says “No.” to Shell, then he would automatically overtake, say… just for example, Nelson Mandela, as “the best president this country would ever have had”?
Has anyone told JZ about this?

Come to think of it, has anyone told Mandela about this?

I also noticed that you “would have had” used the past perfect conditional tense (or some form of it) there as well, Christine. Are you perhaps holding out for a future president to say “No.” to some other company and therefore leapfrog JZ into top spot.
I’m thinking that you’re thinking Julius Malema, right? Yes?
Meaning that the Christine Durell (no relation) list of all-time great South African presidents (post-Apartheid obviously, because none of them were that great before 1994) would read like this:

  1. Julius Malema
  2. Jacob Zuma
  3. Nelson Mandela

That looks awesome. But haven’t we forgotten someone…?
No. No, I don’t think we have.

Moving on – what if JZ does say “No.” to Shell and does become the best president this country would ever have had?

After that, he could probably get away with almost anything.

Once again, Christine, I am left wondering what you have heard and read. I don’t think that your conditional promise will cut much ice with Mr Zuma, because, you see, he already kinda does have those privileges. You’re offering him nothing new here. You’re essentially wanting something for nothing. Is this somehow related to your “don’t sell to the highest bidder” plan? Can you now see the confusion that it’s causing already?

But I have been so very disparaging about your letter thus far when really, all it has been is a lead up to the best and most original brilliant idea ever. Ever ever. An idea so brilliant that if it was ever to become president of South Africa, it would make Julius settle for silver and knock Madiba right out of the medals. Boom.

Bring it, Christine. Bring your brilliant idea on:

And in the meantime, to all those who continually use the four letter “F” word, let’s change it to the five letter one. As in, “frack off”, “no fracking way”, etc.

I’m lost. Incredulous. Bewildered. Blown. Away. Because if they say that the simplest ideas are the best ideas, then this is Sheer “fracking” Genius! (see what I did there?).

How – and I ask this question from my current position seated on the floor, because I was unsure that my legs would still hold me given the effect that your brilliantly simple, brilliantly original, brilliantly brilliant plan would have has had on me – how has no-one come up with this before?

I, for one, Christine, think that rather than placing that sort of idea in an open letter to the president of the republic in a regional newspaper, you should perhaps get some sort of trademark on it and use this as a filthy short-term project to make yourself very rich indeed.  Maybe get some placards and posters made up with “Frack off, Shell” or “Not in my fracking Karoo”.
Perhaps charge journalists a royalty each time they used it in a headline – I have a feeling that if they had thought of your brilliant idea, they’d probably use it as a headline in most (if not all) of the stories they wrote on this issue. Probably.

But these are just my humble suggestions – I recognise that a great mind such as yours will probably have some other brilliant ideas in mind for your brilliant idea.

If nothing else, when Shell see what you have done here, they will surely be forced to immediately shelve their plans to explore the Karoo for natural gas and go and find some other remote wilderness to destroy.

Christine Durell (no relation), we salute you.

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.