This column by Simon Gear first appeared on the 'Don’t Be a Passenger' blog in May of 2011
When you clinked glasses on the 1st of January this year, I bet you had never heard of fracking.
In 6 short months every South African has gone from complete ignorance to strong and opinionated views on the subject. We don’t even giggle at the near-naughtiness of the word any longer.
The tearjerking probably started with the movie Gasland, but was rapidly escalated by Lewis Pugh. Now, I know Lewis by reputation only, as a swimmer who got involved in climate change, largely as a vehicle for him to pursue his rather odd fetish for wallowing in ice cold water. It takes all sorts, I suppose. Rule #34 and all that. Lewis stood up at a public meeting and read a statement that would have made Chief Seattle’s speech writers proud. He invoked Mandela and our Constitution. Tutu, Mahatma Ghandi and Molly Blackburn (who, I’m embarrassed to admit, I had to Google) all get a mention. The prose crescendos until he is commanding the crowd to take the fight, Churchill-style from the petrol pumps of your local garage to the streets of Amsterdam (where Shell have their HQ). It’s a cracking good speech, full of quotable quotes and written very much with an eye for the printed word. This wasn’t something that Mr Pugh suddenly jotted down on the back of an envelope while awaiting his turn to speak. This was PR well prepared and superbly executed.
And I don’t begrudge him, or his backers for playing this card this early in the debate. It achieved what it needed to admirably. The Treasure the Karoo Action Group shot into the limelight and the instantaneous groundswell of public support catapulted the issue past acid mine drainage and dead rhinos and into the very crosshairs of the South African public’s green radar. With startling alacrity the government acted and enforced a moratorium on fracking until everyone could figure out just what on earth is going on.
Because that is half the problem. Neither side has a slam dunk study defending their corner. The fracking industry has made enemies all over the eastern US and the prime movers in the race read like a line-up of the world’s least loved companies. Chevron, Shell, Exxon and British Petroleum. Although not so hated, it’s worth noting, that we don’t all buy their products every day.
Against fracking is a lot of anecdotal evidence and a recent study that, while interesting, is easily pulled apart for its small sample sizes.
I suspect that both sides have a bit of truth on their side, and rather a lot of bluster. If fracking was as bad as it is maintained to be, then proving so would be a lot easier. If it was just another word for power derived from unicorns and rainbows, then why all the fuss? But the important thing here is that now we are looking at it. It is time to shelve the rhetoric, put away the poison pens and the shrill petitions and take a very long, careful and sober look at something that could well make a horrible mess, or a job bonanza. Or maybe a little bit of both.