A response to Jonathan Deal

In my article “We can't treasure only the Karoo” I questioned the approach of the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG). You can read my original article, followed by a response from TKAG chairman Jonathan Deal, by clicking here. What follows is my reply to Jonathan.

Energy demand

Jonathan’s view that saving energy beats creating new supply, including reducing street lighting, is indisputable. Jonathan also correctly highlights that South Africa’s “electricity demand has not increased for five years”. But if this is meant to imply that the future holds anything but an increased demand for electricity, Jonathan is being, at best, misleading. Here are three reasons why.

Firstly, South Africa’s economy is heavily dependent upon energy intensive industries like iron and steel production. Over the past five years, production in these industries has been suppressed due to the global financial crisis, leading to less electricity demand. There can be little doubt the global economic recovery, which is slowly gaining momentum, will once more fuel demand for raw materials and result in increased electricity consumption.  Jonathan has, unfortunately, not uncovered a long term trend.

Secondly, if South Africa’s current population growth rate holds for just ten years, today’s 53 million people will become 60,5 million by 2024.  They will all need electricity.

Thirdly, 22% of South African households remain reliant on paraffin, wood, coal or animal dung as their energy source for cooking and 11% use candles for lighting. As South Africa makes its way up the ladder of prosperity and the government acts on its aim to ensure at least 95% of South Africans enjoy access to electricity by 2030, the number of people using electricity will rise, probably very significantly.

Whilst I agree with Jonathan that it would be wonderful if behavioural change could eliminate the need to generate additional energy, this is quite simply unrealistic. Suggesting electricity demand will do anything but climb is at best delusional and at worst dishonest.

A genuine environmental argument

A genuine environmental response requires a much more robust scientific foundation than arguments such as Jonathan’s trite “Shell is evil” mantra. Simplistic slogans might attract tabloid attention but are a gross simplification of the options we face and seek to pass culpability from us individuals, who collectively demand increased electricity generation, to one of many corporates extracting fuels because of the demand we have ourselves created.

A scientific analysis of all electricity generation options, which would satisfy our reasonably anticipated increased electricity demand, is the only way to enable meaningful comparisons between the impacts of rival generation methods. This is the essential first step to conclude which option is the least environmentally damaging. There is currently no such scientific analysis and, without it, we can’t rationally conclude which is the least environmentally damaging method of meeting our electricity needs (be it by shale gas, renewables or any other method). TKAG are either guessing fracking is worse, or do not care about the impacts of the alternatives.

Meaningless comparisons

At one point Jonathan writes “although [solar installations] can be large, they don't have to be concentrated in only five places nationally”. Well, of course not. If solar were to make a meaningful contribution to the nation’s energy needs we could, for instance, construct one massive solar plant plastering 1,000 km2 of the Karoo, have tens of thousands of tiny plants dotted around the whole country, or something in between.

Jonathan’s offer of 500 hectares for a solar plant may be a generous offer of land from an individual, but a 500 hectare solar plant could produce nothing more than 0,5% of the estimated pre-2030 capacity shortfall, an almost irrelevant amount in national terms.

If the Karoo’s vast shale gas reserves were only capable of generating a similar amount of electricity to Jonathan’s proposed solar plant, no one would be interested in extracting them. But they are not. Jonathan is comparing apples with orange groves.

Distraction techniques

Jonathan questions the contractual relationship between government and BHP Billiton, the multinational mining and petroleum company, and believes it is “telling” that nowhere in my article do I comment on the “conduct of the South African government”. The relationship between private companies and the government undoubtedly bears watching. But even if this arrangement was appalling for the taxpayer it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is also bad for the environment, or that other companies are any different. It also has no bearing on the scientific comparison of environmental impacts between alternative energy sources. Whatever source of energy is ultimately utilised, the dangers of private and public sector corruption are always present.

The Nimby polemicist
 
When Jonathan states “Gas is available right now on the international market and can be delivered to Eskom at between $12.50 and $17.50 per mcf” he inadvertently but unmistakably paints himself as a Nimby campaigner as I previously suggested. Does Jonathan believe the extraction of foreign gas has no environmental impacts? Has he factored in the environmental costs of transporting gas internationally rather than domestically? Are South Africa’s ports large enough to process this gas, or would further devastation of the areas around Richard’s Bay, Mossel Bay and Saldanha be required to enable shipment? Some of this foreign gas is produced by Shell. Would Jonathan still consider Shell “evil” if they merely imported foreign gas?

I don’t doubt Jonathan cares deeply about the Karoo, but does he also care whether importing gas and therefore exporting our energy impacts could have a greater environmental impact than sourcing gas domestically? It appears not. I do.

In conclusion

I feel bound to re-state my position clearly, since Jonathan’s response almost completely ignored the central point of my original article.

1.    It is inescapable that we will require additional electricity generation capacity in the future, whether or not people become more responsible in their energy use (and I sincerely wish they would).

2.    I do not want to see the Karoo fracked. I do not want to see the Mpumalanga wetlands and grasslands destroyed for coal. But it hurts no less to think of the pollution around Baotou in China, where the polluted groundwater is slowly leaching towards the Yellow River. No true environmentalist would ignore the detrimental environmental impacts on other countries’ biodiversity of importing gas, any other fuel, or the manufacture of components for making energy infrastructure.

3.    We should be honest, scientific and detailed in our approach. Renewable energy and foreign sourced fuels have detrimental environmental impacts too. We shouldn’t pretend a 500 hectare solar plant is more than a drop in the ocean of our inescapable future energy needs.

4.    I want to know, and any true environmentalist should want to know, which is the least bad environmental option? We simply do not know the answer to this question without a proper scientific comparative analysis.

The Karoo is privileged to have a vocal single-issue NGO that shouts more loudly than the voiceless Chinese communities suffering from REE production, the people of Mpumalanga who lack a single topic anti-coal NGO and the coastal communities who are yet to realise importing gas would likely threaten additional local habitat with port expansion. But from the perspective of the global environment, the TKAG’s unscientific, localised and exclusionary approach is dangerous. It should not be supported by anyone with a genuine concern for environmental conservation in both the Karoo and beyond it.

NOTE

Jonathan Deal has responded to this piece, read his comment below.

SOURCES

1.    National Development Plan 2030, National Planning Commission, November 2011
2.    Statistical release P0301.4, Census 2011, Statistics South Africa, October 2012
3.    Statistical release P0302, Mid-year population estimates 2013, Statistics South Africa, May 2013