We can't treasure only the Karoo

First published on 7 December 2013 in By, the supplement of Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad. Click here to open a PDF in Afrikaans or read the original English version below.

Single issue conservation NGOs can wield great influence and gain much publicity for their causes. A responsibility to ensure they really are promoting the best deal for conservation should go with this, but a high profile does not ensure that’s always the case. The Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) may be a case in point.

South Africa’s National Development Plan identified a need to build around 30,000 megawatts of new electricity generation capacity by 2030. To visualise the infrastructure necessary to generate that much power, imagine fifteen Koeberg nuclear power stations.

This capacity must be built somewhere, whether it is generated by coal, renewables, gas or any other means. Pragmatic conservationists should therefore prepare the environmental case on how to satisfy that energy hunger in the least environmentally detrimental way, based on sound scientific evidence, not emotion. Calls by anti-fracking lobbyists, TKAG, to prevent fracking in the Karoo neither lessen electricity demand, nor adequately provide an alternative. TKAG’s “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) approach pushes impacts elsewhere and risks, perhaps, even greater environmental harm than that they seek to prevent.

Anyone thinking renewable energy is “clean energy” should visit Baotou in China, the epicentre of world rare earth element (REE) production. The REE industry has led to Baotou being blighted by radioactively contaminated soil and groundwater and the air is laced with solvent vapour. REEs are an essential component in wind turbine manufacture.

China produces over 90% of the world’s REEs and their lower level of environmental regulation keeps down costs. If anti-fracking groups exaggerate the theoretical risk of Karoo groundwater contamination, leading to increased wind energy generation rather than utilising our gas reserves, we export some of our environmental side effects and contaminate someone else’s groundwater.

Solar power also has environmental issues, one being the immense amount of land needed. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has reported on solar power plant land requirements in the USA. There are many variables in calculating averages and these figures were based on US solar plants so should be treated with caution, but their “total area capacity weighted average” shows that a solar power plant capable of generating 20% of South Africa’s anticipated pre-2030 power capacity shortfall would require over 200 km2 of land. That is a larger tract of land than the entire Camdeboo National Park in the Karoo. If you know of a piece of land with no biodiversity value that size please step forward. If solar is to satisfy the anticipated pre-2030 energy demand shortfall we need five of them.

Working at the coalface of conservation, in the Mpumalanga grasslands and wetlands, is Kerryn Morrison of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). Kerryn explained how the “grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the country and wetlands are the most critically endangered ecosystem we have.” Media coverage of the threats from coal mining in these habitats is minimal compared to that about fracking in the Karoo, but that doesn’t mean they have less value.

Around 75% of the grasslands of Mpumalanga are currently under mining application or being mined. In Mpumalanga’s Steenkampsberg many of the proposed mining operations hold coal reserves which would last merely a couple of years. Mining these areas means critically important habitat will be destroyed for a relatively small quantity of coal.

Kerryn says that a blanket ban on future coal mining is simply implausible, and of course she’s right, but it goes further than that. A ban on future coal mining would merely displace energy impacts elsewhere.

The EWT is part of local consortium of NGOs and government bodies, led by the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), seeking to establish the best way to formally protect areas with a high biodiversity and water resource value. Proclamation will largely secure such areas from unsustainable development and conserve our natural heritage. The mining industry has been included in discussions.

The approach of prioritising sensitive areas and not objecting to coal mining en masse is both pragmatic and likely to be more effective in the long run. A total ban on fracking in the Karoo is similarly unlikely. If TKAG used its considerable resources and profile to seek the formal protection of those areas of the Karoo with the highest biodiversity value, it could be doing the Karoo a far greater service.

Many of the exploration companies interested in the Steenkampsberg’s coal are small scale miners, invested in a single site. It would be reasonable to expect many of these companies to be wound up at the end of their mine’s short lifecycle. Acid mine drainage, the outflow of acidic water from disused coal mines, can often occur a decade after the mining ceases, years after many of the Steenkampsberg miners will have been liquidated. No one can force a company which no longer exists to rehabilitate.

Much of the Karoo anti-fracking commentary is simply along the lines of “Shell is evil”. Blaming large multinational corporations for the world's ills is both fashionable and likely to grab tabloid attention. This ignores the obvious point that it’s better to have multinationals like Shell than companies which are unlikely to be around in a few years’ time which can’t be forced to rectify any pollution they cause.

All forms of generating power have negative environmental impacts. If fracking the least sensitive parts of the Karoo leads to less mining of the critically endangered Mpumalanga wetlands, fewer hundreds of square kilometres of land being plastered with solar panels and a lower demand for REEs meaning less groundwater pollution in someone else’s backyard, that is likely to be an environmental victory. We shouldn’t treasure only the Karoo.

To be certain of the least damaging means (or combination of means) of generating South Africa’s electricity requires a detailed scientific analysis of all energy options and their effects. It is not good enough to say “we need renewables, not gas”. Precisely where will these renewables be located and what are their impacts? We must make fair comparisons.

Creating public anxiety based on prejudices against fracking, along with encouraging assumptions that renewables have no negative implications, is a dangerous tactic which can lead to net global environmental harm. Preventing fracking in the Karoo does not lessen electricity demand. Worse, if it leads to more significant environmental impacts occurring elsewhere, anti-fracking lobbyists are nothing more than local champions and NIMBY activists. Environmental victories should only be won on scientific evidence and not on who shouts loudest.

Update

Read the response of Jonathan Deal, the chairman of TKAG, to this article in the comments section below or on his own website by clicking here. I have in turn responded to Jonathan's article and you can read my response by clicking here.

What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is a technique to extract shale gas deposited in rock deep underground. A high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into rock causing cracks, sand particles keep the cracks open and that allows the gas to flow to the surface. The water scarce Karoo is thought to have rich shale gas reserves.

Sources

1.    National Development Plan 2030, National Planning Commission, November 2011.

2.    Eskom power stations, Eskom, February 2013. Click here for the link.

3.    Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues, United States Environmental Protection Agency, December 2012. Click here for the link.

4.    Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages, The Guardian, 7 August 2012. Click here for the link.

5.    After China’s Rare Earth Embargo, a New Calculus, New York Times, 29 October 2010. Click here for the link.

6.    Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks, Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 28 January 2013. Click here for the link.

7.    Land-Use Requirements for Solar Power Plants in the United States, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, June 2013. Click here for the link.

8.    Camdeboo National Park, Park Management Plan For the period 2013 - 2023. Click here for the link.

Links active on 2 December 2013.