When the South African government recently announced a national moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, the controversial, water-intense and polluting method of extracting natural gas from underground layers of shale rock also known as fracking, it came as a bit of a surprise to many, including me.
Environmental activism can be frustrating. Soul-destroying even. How often do endless hours of organising, research, lobbying, letter-writing and picketing seem to be ignored by the powers that be? How often do environmental policy makers seem to side with what’s good for profit and so-called development, regardless of what ordinary people think or what the detrimental impacts of their decisions will be on nature?
Against all odds
Against all of these negative expectations it’s amazingly uplifting to actually achieve a victory in our struggles to protect the environment; this is most certainly one of them. The moratorium announced by the South African cabinet puts on hold all current and future proposed fracking operations throughout the country until enough scientific evidence can be gathered to fully assess the environmental impact of the technology.
What exactly it was that prompted government to make the decisions is unclear, but I suspect it was a combination of factors. When I first started writing about fracking in South Africa last year, not many people had heard much about it. Gradually people and the media started to become aware of the potential dangers. I, and others continued to write articles on the topic; alarmed farmers in the affected areas started to join forces for a legal defence of their land; villagers in remote parts of the country formed local anti-fracking committees and city slickers joined a growing number of indigenous Facebook groups.
Grassroots origins – and a Care2 petition
There was a genuinely organic and grassroots groundswell of opposition. It seemed quite obvious to the vast majority of South Africans that in a extremely water-stressed country like ours and at a time when it’s important to move away from climate-changing fossil fuels and towards cleaner, renewable energy solutions, frack was most definitely wack!
We started an anti-fracking petition on Care2 that many of you signed and which we submitted to the Petroleum Agency of South Africa in response to an application by multinational oil and gas giant Shell to explore for shale gas in a vast, 90,000 square kilometre area.
I’m part of a little collective that organizes public screenings of what we think are important documentary films, and we hosted screenings of Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated anti-fracking doccie ‘Gasland’ in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Angry cinema-goers who saw what was in stall for us if we went the fracking route joined the ranks of anti-fracking converts. A film maker friend of ours went out into the dry Karoo region that was most immediately threatened by fracking and came back with beautifully shot public service announcements against fracking. Watch two of them here:
In the end it was probably the combined pressure of this growing public opposition that gave government no option but to declare a moratorium against fracking.
Not the end, yet
It would be extremely naive to believe that this is the end of the story, of course. The companies interested in fracking in South Africa, foremost among them Shell, are unlikely to simply shelve their plans and pack up their drilling rigs just because the local population doesn’t like them. They are guaranteed to invest considerable amounts of money and resources into trying to convince the South African government to lift the moratorium.
We may have won a victory, but the struggle against fracking in South Africa continues. Our initially success has certainly given us the confidence to know that we can stop this destructive technology from despoiling our country in the future. Watch this space!
Photo from: Stock.Xchng