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Fracking controversy

On The Daily Maverick, I recently wrote a column about “fracking” in the Karoo. It was, shall we say, explosive. It got hundreds of comments, many of which I tried to do justice with a reply. It took me four days to write the column, and another three — working 16-hour days — to keep up with the debate. Contrary to the allegations, I do not have the resources of Shell behind me. It’s just me.

However, since then, several posts have appeared challenging my views. Although I thought most of the points were mere rehashes of the great debate at The Daily Maverick, I did write a response to one of them. Since the M&G ThoughtLeader site does not permit comments longer than 250 words, and the author’s own blog doesn’t permit comments at all, some people have asked me to post my response elsewhere. So, here it is. It’s probably best to read them side-by-side:

Allow me to respond, point by point.

  • I did not confuse the water use for exploration with total usage. I referred to the former because that is what the Havemann report objects to in calling for a total ban on exploration that could lead to hydraulic fracking. I was clear elsewhere that shale gas production regions typically account for 1,5% of local water use. I noted that this was not insignificant, especially in a dry region. I was also clear that I expect Shell to answer the question of where it will get this water, but that such a demand falls well short of banning drilling, now and forever.
  • I did not state that we can trust Shell. What I said was that Shell has a motive not to give the public cause for complaints. I expect Shell to be held to its contractual commitments, just like anyone else.
  • Regulatory capture can hardly be blamed on the companies that operate in the regulated space. It happens because of ill-conceived regulation, or outright corruption. Nowhere did I defend this.
  • The precautionary principle logically contradicts itself, as I repeatedly stated in the comments to my column (which, despite their extraordinarily high number I kept replying to, as a matter of courtesy and responsibility). It is not possible to prove the absence of risk. Even if it were, not doing something because it might cause harm does not take into account the potential harm caused by not doing it. The precautionary principle says that the precautionary principle cannot be applied because we cannot know the risk of applying the precautionary principle. The point is: show a reasonable expectation of future harm, if you want to ban something. Citing lack of evidence for such harm as a cause to ban something would significantly delay or even block progress.
  • If Bob says you stole his chocolate, and you say you didn’t, mere evidence that Bob no longer has his chocolate is not proof that you stole it. I’m sure most of us can see why the logic is perfectly fine.
  • Vague allegations, without any specific evidence. Show the evidence.
  • Noting that problems are not associated with hydraulic fracturing shows dishonesty, in that the objection is to “fracking”. If drilling is the problem, then say so, so we can argue honestly about the same thing. Of course, that risks having to face the fact that drilling is an even more ordinary activity, about which the risks are well-understood.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is not cited. In fact, doing so would be impossible, because all I said about it was that it would produce preliminary results in late 2012. (I did this to contrast Havemann’s rush job, and to suggest that it might be premature to call for a ban on all future exploration for shale gas.)
  • I noted their objectives not to expose bias, but to show that their stated goals go well beyond expressing concern about specific risks. Yes, I’m ideologically a free-market advocate. My other opinions derive from this. I make no apologies for that.
  • I attach little value to the greenhouse gas implications of shale gas drilling. Never mind that I don’t believe our own impact on climate change is alarming, but drilling for natural gas is hardly new, and the process against which the TKAG objects does nothing to increase the risk.
  • On jobs, all I’d point out is that jobs created by market forces are sustainable. Those created by subsidies and handouts are not jobs, but charity for which everyone else pays tax.
  • Since you stopped using bullets, allow me to note what I placed in my postscript. I entirely support the right of Karoo farmers to make decisions about their own property. That they do not own their mineral rights, so that Shell does not have to negotiate with them and conclude binding contracts with all the guarantees and compensation clauses farmers might require is not the fault of farmers, nor of Shell, and certainly not of their technique for extracting shale gas. It is the fault of the government.

    If you want to object to the powerlessness of Karoo farmers, aim your critique at the right target, and complain about the right problem.

    Excuse the lack of formatting. I really am rather swamped at present, as interesting and important as this debate is.

    Read Aragorn Eloff’s Ivo Vegter vs the fracking fringe

  • This was first posted on Ivo Vegter’s blog, The Spike