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Ivo Vegter vs the fracking fringe

By Aragorn Eloff

Ivo Vegter was rousing.

In a recent article on The Daily Maverick website the well-known local free market ideologue and climate change denialist dutifully performs his well-rehearsed cherry-picking dance of apologist rhetoric in an unsuccessful attempt to ward off the growing grassroots opposition to Shell’s application to prospect for natural gas in the Karoo [http://www.shell.co.za/karoo] using hydraulic fracturing.

Beginning by pointing out the ‘Churchillian grand oratory’ of Lewis Pugh’s speech to the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG), Ivo proceeds to deliver a tedious array of anti-environmentalist slurs against the dreaded angry and irrational Big Green Lobby – all 4×4 driving ‘ecomentalists’ in sandals and hemp trousers – seemingly unaware throughout of his own hyperbole. Then again, a little bit of caricature goes a long way; had Ivo chosen to fairly portray his opponents as what they are: a loose gathering of reasonably concerned Karoo farmers, retirees, business people and scientists – he would have had to rely on facts alone, and balanced facts are precisely what he is lacking.

Not that his style doesn’t feel like level headed scientific discourse; it’s just that it entirely lacks any credible, robustly examined scientific content, drawing instead upon carefully misleading language and questionable industry propaganda.

Still, it feels like a point by point refutation is in order.

  • Ivo confuses the water use of the exploratory phase with the much greater (perhaps a thousand times greater) water use of the full commercial project that would result from success in this phase.
  • Bizarrely, he states that we can trust Shell! Given their ‘humanitarian’ operations in places like Nigeria and elsewhere, I doubt many people find them inherently trustworthy.
  • Another argument he gives for trusting Shell is that, as a reputable company, they wouldn’t want to risk the legal repercussions of doing anything even remotely controversial. Of course, that’s not how the real world works. In fact there’s even a term for the all-too regular phenomenon of big business co-opting state regulation: regulatory capture. In South Africa we also call this business as usual.
  • Ivo interprets a lack of information about the risks of fracking in the Karoo as a reason to go ahead anyway. Presumably he has never heard of the precautionary principle?
  • He seems to imply that because we don’t know exactly how the specific mixes of chemicals used in fracking (arsenic, barium, strontium, benzene, BE-6, Aldecide G, FDP-S798, and Borate Crosslinker J532) are getting into groundwater, we can’t prove that they’re in the water because of the fracking. I’m sure most of us can see the problem with this kind of logic.
  • Evidence that fracking has never caused any harm, anywhere, ever, is dredged up. Of course, the agencies (and in some cases lobby groups) Ivo cites have all been challenged by citizens and external auditing bodies and their neutrality is highly questionable. In some cases regulators have even been caught receiving regular gifts from oil companies. Regulatory capture, perhaps?
  • Ivo would also have us believe that fracking is safe because most of the ecological damage results not from the actual moment of hydraulic fracturing but from the surrounding processes of drilling, transportation, storage and so forth. Again, I’m sure I don’t need to point out why this is absurdly illogical.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is cited. After all, surely if the EPA says fracking is fine we have nothing to worry about? The problem here is that there is serious dissent within EPA ranks: whistle-blower Weston Wilson and several of his colleagues have challenged the integrity of the EPA report on fracking as well as the impartiality of the organisation. EPA opinion is also heavily divided; even EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe is angry with the frackers.
  • Ivo takes the TKAG – as well as commentators like Andreas Spath, to task for being mere ideologues spouting ‘clean green waffle’. Ironically, however, few have as visible and dogmatic an ideological bias as Ivo himself, an enthusiastic promoter of the usual ideological mix of free markets, nuclear energy, GM crops and climate change denialism.
  • Although he would have us believe that gas is cleaner than coal, brand new research out of Cornell University indicates that once we factor in the full lifecycle impact of gas production – including all the methane emissions – it is equivalent to coal in terms of ecological impact .
  • Finally, Ivo pulls the job card. In doing so, he also creates a false dilemma, stating that it’s either development of the fossil fuel industry (natural gas is a fossil fuel, of course) or no development (or jobs) at all. In sunny South Africa, of all places, I’m sure we can recognise that there are saner paths we can follow.

Throughout his predictable attack on the TKAG, Ivo uses every rhetorical trick in the book to paint them as a fringe group of irrational yuppie sentimentalists, even though the people expressing concern represent a broad range of regular, everyday folks. (In fact I’m willing to bet they’re very similar in composition to the group of Groot Marico residents I filmed last year, who fought against and successfully stopped nickel mining prospectors. I might be wrong though; Ivo is welcome to watch this short video about the Marico struggle and point out the Green Nazis.

In general, Ivo’s core tactic is exactly the same as that used by the spin doctors who want us to believe that there’s nothing wrong with nuclear energy, that GM foods are perfectly safe, and that there’s no scientific consensus behind climate change.

If these paid professionals (unpaid ‘altruists’ in Ivo’s case) are able to make us feel small and confused, as if we’re a tiny, out of touch minority who don’t represent the hopes and aspirations of regular people, they can keep us silent and divided.

I’m guessing however that the opposite is true – that those of us who are beginning to recognise the dire consequences of life out of balance, of unhinged science and a developmental economics detached from reality, of progress for its own sake and only ever of a single kind, now represent the bulk of opinion.

If so, then it might be that it is in fact people like Ivo, with their dogmatic reductionist ideologies and their strong confirmation bias – their remarkable ability to collect and interpret ‘evidence’ in a such a contrived fashion they can even convince themselves that anthropogenic climate change isn’t real – who are the real irrational fringe.

Read my full refutation here.
And here is another excellent take on the matter.

Read Ivo Vegter’s Fracking Controversy

Aragorn Eloff is an amateur filmmaker and one of the directors of the South African Vegan Society. He is currently traveling the world interviewing anarchists for a feature-length documentary on the subject, which he hopes to release sometime in the foreseeable future.

  • lionel byrne

    shell pack your bags and frack out of our peaceful karoo

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    @Gerry: The problem, however, is that unless you’re an expert in everything there’s a kind of infinite regress that comes into play when you start looking for the facts. Look for an evolutionist vs. intelligent design debate on the net, for instance, and you’ll find all sorts of non-emotive, sophisticated sounding, ‘facty’ arguments in favour of the latter, arguments whose authors are highly proficient users of the language of the advanced life sciences. Easy to discern the truth? Read EO Wilson’s critique of kin selection and then go to nature.com and read the critiques of Wilson. Remember also that although Wilson is saying something controversial, so was Margulis when she proposed the theory of endosymbiosis. My point again, before I stray further off topic, is that we can’t *just* rely on the person who sounds ‘factier’ – style often conceals a lack of content.

    I completely agree with your statement,’Agree with climate-change and you are green idealist bunny-hugger left-wing loony’ – I know I didn’t help much to depolarise the debate, but I hope I at least drew attention to the fact that Ivo also employs this emotive approach, even when he seems to be dispassionately delivering the facts.

    I’m sad to hear you’ve lapsed into free marketism, by the way. Exactly what kind of left-wing revolution were you involved in when you were younger, and why doesn’t it make sense?

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    @Gerry: The idea that the free market is compatible with anarchism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of anarchism as mere anti-statist negative freedom. Since Proudhon, however, who was the first person to use the term in describing himself, all the prominent anarchist theorists (Bakunin, Kropotkin and the rest of that very long list – http://www.theanarchistlibrary.org/author-index.html) have defined anarchism as necessarily social, as based on a positive + negative freedom principle of ‘equal-liberty’.

    Here’s Bakunin:

    “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.

    It is the slavery of other men that sets up a barrier to my freedom, or what amounts to the same thing, it is their bestiality which is the negation of my humanity. For my dignity as a man, my human right which consists of refusing to obey any other man, and to determine my own acts in conformity with my convictions is reflected by the equally free conscience of all and confirmed by the consent of all humanity.

    My personal freedom, confirmed by the liberty of all, extends to infinity.”

    You may disagree with this idea, but it is the fundamental principle upon which anarchism – being a radical critique of domination: statist, economic, ethnic, gender-based and so forth – rests.

    See the anarchist FAQ for more: http://www.infoshop.org/page/AnarchistFAQSectionF2

  • Gerry

    “Exactly what kind of left-wing revolution were you involved in when you were younger, and why doesn’t it make sense? ”

    I was a radical commie – art student. Prior to the ’94 elections, I drank red wine and talked revolution with the recently unbanned ANC youth league. I was a total beret-wearing red-shirted left-wing loonie, and hated any form of mass-commecialism. (To an extent I still do). But through my life, trying to make ends meet, I’ve discovered that a capitalist system is a lot more fair than a socialist one. Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard makes more sense in my mind than Maynard Keynes.

    Labour theory of value does not sit right in my mind. Anymore. Subjective theory of value has a better quality to it.

    Okay, your turn: tear it apart! ;-D

  • HD

    @Gerry and Aragorn

    I think for me more fundamental is the concepts of non-coercion and voluntarism. I am increasingly beginning to see myself more along the lines of a voluntaryist. A mere absence of government is not sufficient for an orderly prosperous and free society.

    As Don Boudreaux put it recently: “I believe that human nature is consistent with an “archon-less” (leaderless) society, but human culture must be such as to support such a state of affairs. It’s not always, or even typically, so, alas.”

    I could go on about Haykian spontaneous order and how a free society can develop along those lines.

    (cont)

  • HD

    You should think that anarchist can work together around the concepts of non-coercion and voluntaryism.

    (By the way many ancaps even draw on Kropotkin’s concept of “mutual aid” comparing it to Hayek’s spontaneous order but lets not get Aragorn upset about this heresy).

    The biggest reason I got disillusioned about the left (university and work) was that I encountered a lot of self righteous assholes that believed their take on the world was right and that it was not even worth engaging in any debate with someone with a different viewpoint.

    It was this constant us vs them mentality…These people also always seemed obsessed with defining all human relationships in terms of power & exploitation (way too much Hegel & Marx) and generally speaking loathed the state of the world, harked back to some mystical past when things where supposedly better or envisioned some ideal man – it was not an uplifting or positive “ism” for me at all.

    And then we are not even talking about the total lack of economic reasoning which often is the practical test for both intellectual and scientific solutions…

    I often think there are deeper social and psychological reason why the left tends to be intellectually elitist, ideological absolutist and suckers for “scientism” and “total/final” solutions. (There are some interesting articles on intellectuals and why many tend to be left)

    Just look at the TL blogs. Who are the guys that engage their opponents and who are those that simply dismiss them?

  • Grant Walliser

    Aragorn Eloff – Faraday was a physicist and a chemist and stuck to both with great results and without getting distracted by economics or film making which kinda proves my point. I don’t have any issue with lay people having opinions and the more informed people are the better. I do suggest, however, that in this debate an intimate understanding of the fracking process combined with many years of field experience of its effects combined with a massive environmental impact assessment in the Karoo is required to pass some kind of ultimate judgement. The two of you decided to do that after some light reading, got emotional about your side of the debate without rationally considering both sides and declared that judgement from a pulpit with a shaky base.

    The end result is two passionate articles fueled more by personal emotional agenda than hard fact which leaves your readers to pick a side, neither of which appear correct to me.

    That said, the fact that this debate is happening is significant and I certainly hope that it leads to more being known and understood without the usual cloud of human irrationality settling on it like a swarm of fat annoying flys. For that reasonm alone, the two fringe debates here are of great value to those who read both and settle in the middle, realising how little we actually know.

  • Nguni

    Boycott Shell products. That’s one message they WILL understand.

  • enegene

    Thank you for this well worded refutation of the Ivo article.
    I find it quite frustrating that schoolyard bullying is the primary tactic of the “anti-green” contributors.
    It is not possible to hold a literary, scientific or journalistic light up to a piece of writing while simultaneously resorting to name-calling like sandal wearing hippy or vegan anarchist.
    Even well worded one’s like Clarens.
    The most obvious point is that Shell is a foreign company that has its own profit in mind. Their human rights and environmental record is abysmal, in particular in Nigeria. This cannot be denied.
    The second is, the process is highly toxic, no way around it. For those living in the area, there are bound to be serious repercussions.
    Thirdly. We could be harvesting energy in South Africa by South African companies in a non-toxic way and make all the monney for ourselves.
    It’s that easy.
    Why squabble about letting a huge multinational loot our national resources ?

  • Gerry

    “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free”

    You are right, I do disagree.

    The idea is noble, but the notion that MY freedom is dependent on the freedom of others is one I cannot sit with.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not FOR the un-freedom of others, its just that I think that anarchism, like charity, starts in the home. I cannot make my life dependent on the lives of evertone else that shares this planet.

    Its an idealist notion, and if we follow the idealist notion, it means that no one will ever be free, because there will never be a time when we are ALL free.

    Again, the socialist in me just… does not exist anymore.

    I take responsibility, accountability and credit for MY actions, and leave it to the rest of the world to do the same.

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    @HD: In response to all three of your posts.

    1) My point simply being that Shell’s primary motive is not inherently compatible with the motive Ivo says they have to serve the public interest; I’m guessing the two are, more often than not, at odds.

    2) Ivo observed that regulatory capture happens and discussed the conditions that allow for it, which we mostly agree on. The implication here, however – given what he is responding to in my rebuttal – is that regulatory capture, because it is the fault of the regulatory system, not the corporations themselves, is somehow inconsequential.

    3) Please clarify the problems with my analogy (which is simply observing some criteria for inferring probable cause).

    4) We do not live in a free market economy, therefore it’s problematic to see jobs as merely simple market transactions.

    And no,I’m not a Marxist, nor do most anarchists ‘believe’ in the labour theory of value, nor do they even see it in the way you imply (simple value labour correlation).

    5) Most anarchists are critical of economic reductionism as well as Hegelian and Marxist teleology; these days their analyses of power (and their critiques of essentialism, i.e., Rousseauianism) rely on sophisticated thinkers like Foucault.

    6) As the aforementioned Foucault would say, what you term ‘economic reasoning’ is not a priori; it is as contingent as anything it is applied to.

    7) Most anarchists are also critical of ‘blueprints’ or ‘final solutions’.

  • Rory Short

    Science aside my gut feeling is that fracking the Karoo is not something that will enhance the beauty of the Karoo in anyway at all. In fact it will damage it. Therefore I am totally opposed to it. The Karoo is a unique asset belonging to this country and its people and it is simply not possible to price it.

  • http://www.vegansociety.org.za Aragorn Eloff

    Looks like a sensible decision has been made: http://www.eyewitnessnews.co.za/articleprog.aspx?id=64402

  • nguni

    Ever the optimist Aragorn..
    Excuse my cynicism regarding the Dept of Minerals, but when you read:
    “The department will now lead a multi-disciplinary team to fully research the implications of the practice”, you know what is going to happen. Those pen-pushers only now realise how controversial the issue is so the ‘research time’ will be used to up the stakes, if Shell want to frack then then they will have to pay a lot more bribes.

  • Rene

    If one looks at the experience they’ve had in Pennsylvania, fracking should be avoided altogether.

  • Roland

    I’m sorry Aragorn, but you’re wrong. *You* haven’t done your homework and you don’t know what you’re talking about, not Ivo Vegter.

    I was part of a Facebook group and left it, simply due the deliberate perpetration of deceit and lies by members of the group. When I challenged them, I was told more or less that the end justifies the means and that lying and cheating to achieve their goals is in order, and since the “enemy” also uses those tactics they are justified. This is not a single incident, it’s a pattern.

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