There are few more controversial topics within the fractious global debate on the impact of extractive industries than ‘fracking’ – or more correctly the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. Invented in America, fracking has produced a cheap gas bonanza in the US – and a storm of criticism from community and environmental activists. And now companies want to exploit the rich shale beds of South Africa’s Karoo desert – but at what price?
With fracking still to commence in the Karoo, OSISA has funded the production of a 55-minute documentary film and photo exhibition on the fierce fight around fracking in South Africa.
The project – entitled The High Cost of Cheap Gas – will lift the lid on the planned developments in both South Africa, providing high-quality, evidence-based material to help raise awareness and spark debate among the public and decision-makers across the region about the real costs of natural gas development, particularly its longer-term impacts on the environment, water supplies, and the health and livelihoods of marginalised people, such as the San.
In particular, the film will provide the latest scientific information because the current debate around natural gas development in southern Africa has not been informed by the latest science ‘leaking’ from the gas fields of America, even though the hard lessons learned in the home of fracking must inform southern Africa’s response to this type of international investment.
The project will link the southern African context with the American experience to inform this critical debate and help countries in the region to take advantage of the small window of opportunity for them to make choices that secure the best - most healthy and wealthy future – for their people.
The project will look at the well-trumpeted (by companies and governments) benefits of natural gas development as well as the potentially high costs of ‘fracking’ in the Karoo through the lens of water rights, human rights and environmental costs, as well as more darker, hidden costs like the impact of endocrine disruptor chemicals and other pollutants on fertility, childhood development and the long term health of the region.
The film will gather evidence and analysis from both sides of the debate – from interviews with the multinational oil company, Shell, to discussions with San groups who have lived on this land for millennia, from talks with industry figures in America to conversations with South African farmers about their concerns over water, from meetings with activists behind burning barricades to visits to mining communities that have experienced this type of development before.
The film is already in the pre-production, research and development phase and a considerable amount has already been accomplished. The director, Jeff Barbee – who was responsible for the award-winning OSISA and OSF-SA supported multimedia project, Creating a Climate for Change in 2011 – has collected a series of stunning photos from the Karoo, both on the ground and from the air and has accumulated a large and growing file of rare material from the SKA and SALT telescopes and interviews with local communities.
Indeed, enough material has already been collected to produce a 9 minute film that was released in February 2013 and was screened on a special nationwide US TV broadcast by LinkTV.
But the feature-length documentary will provide a more detailed investigation into the possible long term impacts – both the benefits in terms of jobs and cheaper gas and the possible costs.
Long Term Effects - Southern Africa struggles today with a dirty extraction legacy, from acid mine drainage to the loss of Karoo towns like Prieska where blue asbestos mining has resulted in thousands of deaths and widespread illness. This project will look at this history to determine how well South Africa may deal with the large-scale extraction of natural gas, and dangers like groundwater contamination associated with all parts of the process, not only fracking. In addition, large scale extractive industries have not necessarily turned into the job creation, poverty elimination and development vehicles the governments often proclaim. Meanwhile, oversight and accountability mechanisms are being increasingly limited. South Africa’s Secrecy Bill is a case in point. Interestingly, similar legal developments in the United States in 2002 made access to information around the environmental effects of fracking almost impossible and sometimes even illegal to collate.
Water rights – The process of natural gas development requires large amounts of water, mixed with a secret combination of chemicals, injected into the wells. Since the proposed areas for development are predominately deserts, there is an obvious concern about where the billions of litres of water are supposed to come from. In addition, the real possibility of large scale pollution of the few precious clean water resources is a major cost of this development.
Threat to Long Term Developments based on science – Natural gas development could threaten the operations of the planned Square Kilometre Array – the largest radio telescope on the planet – as well as the largest optical telescope in the southern Hemisphere.
Health – Health experts like Dr Theo Colborn study chemicals used in and given off by natural gas production, both in the air and water, explain very clearly the long-term effects of these chemicals and the long-term groundwater and air pollution associated with it. Chemicals like BPA, ethylene glycols and other endocrine disrupters cause long-term genetic damage across generations. The associated air pollution, called ground-level ozone, also causes severe lung problems in children.
Lessons from abroad - The film will look at the result of the natural gas development that has already taken place in Colorado since 1998. Many of these same companies are applying to come to southern Africa – and their track records are not encouraging. The film will help people in southern Africa to learn from mistakes that people in the US made by allowing this development to take place without proper oversight.