Getting To The Bottom Of Fracking

Unearthed was recently featured on RSG’s EkoForum. Christine Wessels spoke to the director, Jolynn Minnaar, to find out more about the project and the findings that have been uncovered during the 18 month investigation. Below is a translated, transcribed version.


Christine: Jolynn, we’re sitting here at Zootee Studios in Cape Town where you are busy with the post-production on a documentary you’ve produced called ‘Unearthed’ that investigates hydraulic fracturing. Over the last year, we have all been holding our breath to see what happens with regards to fracking in South Africa.

Jolynn: During the past 18 months, prior to making a decision on whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing, the South African government decided to conduct more research and declared a moratorium on all license applications. This year, on the 7th of September, the moratorium was lifted and now the various companies can apply for exploration rights to test for possible shale gas reservoirs in the Karoo.

Christine: The documentary, ‘Unearthed’, how did that come to fruition?

Jolynn: It all began in April 2011. I stumbled across the word ‘fracking’ in a newspaper and an innocent, inquisitive streak ended up prompting the project . Having done some research and realizing there was a severe lack of information impeding a broader public discussion on the matter, I was concerned that those responsible for making the decisions about fracking were in no position to make an open, inclusive, informed decision. One of the main obstructions in accessing information is due to the fact that the only existing shale gas model is in America. This is a problem if you’re situated in South Africa or Europe and you’re trying to understand what it is about and decide whether or not it is good idea to pursue. So, I set off to see what the whole saga is about.

Christine: The reason why this fracking saga is so close to home is that they want to frack in the Karoo – an area where you grew up.  You have told me before that you originally thought that it would be a good idea; that it could create job opportunities and possibly strengthen the economy. This was when you decided to go and do extensive research to find out what the true impact would be from hydraulic fracturing. You then went over to America to do research into the making of your documentary Unearthed; tell us about your findings in America.

Jolynn: At first, I was very optimistic about shale gas development. I believed that we could strengthen the economy and address our severe unemployment crisis but in America I was shocked to find that so much information is manipulated or hidden from outside researchers. One staggering example is the prevalence of gag orders that are signed by families who are impacted by air or water pollution. I, and other researchers, are unable to speak to them because they are bound by contractual obligations with the companies who are drilling in the area and have been linked to the relevant contamination on that property. Those cases become hidden statistics. This is very troubling because crucial information is missing and the rest of the world is unable to see the entire picture.

Christine: Just your mentioning of ‘gag orders’ makes me suspicious. Explain to us what this entails.

Jolynn: If a family is impacted by drilling activities, usually the relevant company extracting gas on or near their property will settle on the grounds of a ‘non-disclosure agreement’. In this scenario the family involved would receive financial compensation, property relocation or clean water but would then have to swear not to talk about it.  This is happening across the entire US which is very disturbing because there are governments worldwide that are considering shale gas extraction and they are not aware of the secrecy involved with this process to keep the general public oblivious to what is actually going on.

Christine: What are the impacts that come with fracking?

Jolynn: There is an array of impacts. I’ve met families who have chemicals or methane in their water; children dealing with nosebleeds from the air pollution and animals suffering in compromised environment. And the impacts don’t always have to be that dramatic. Someone who lives in a quiet, peaceful town suddenly has to deal with the deafening noise of a never-ending line of trucks driving past at all hours of the day. Local residents are also having to deal with a more expensive everyday life due to inflated prices that accompany the arrival of new workers in the area.

Essentially, it is an enormous challenge to fully understand the array of ramifications and an even greater one to try and quantify those impacts.
You can’t be in a country like South Africa and just Google it; you have to be in the US and actually talk to the people, test the water, test the air, talk to their governments, talk to the regulatory agencies to truly understand what is going on. After 18 months on this project, I am still meticulous and constantly research my findings to ensure credibility that will aid the shale gas debate – one which has failed the public in many countries across the world due to a lack of open, informed discussions and a severe paucity of information coming from ‘ground zero’ in extraction areas in America.

Christine: Are there other people that have also done proper research who you can go to and talk to? Are there others who won’t cover or omit information regarding this issue?

Jolynn: The broader context is what makes the fracking debate so complex. In America, the mainstream media is largely privately owned and this limits the amount of attention given to issues such as fracking. Due to budget constraints, pressures from advertisers, funders or political allegiances and perceived audience interest ratings, news outlets such as FOX NEWS won’t necessarily send someone out to Colorado or Texas to find out what is going on. There may not be budget nor is it necessarily a “sexy story.”

Independent researchers or scientists also struggle to generate the capital to thoroughly investigate fracking. I also struggled to get all this information and no one paid me. I am just incredibly grateful that to the many generous supporters out there that have enabled me to carry the project as far as possible.

So, to answer your question, yes, there are amazing people who are researching this but perhaps not enough and where there are, their work does not reach headlines or the tables of those making the decisions in government. There are various reasons for these circumstances. You’re dealing with constraints on the mainstream media, financial challenges for the independent scientist or investigator and the fact that what you’re investigating is not necessarily in everyone’s backyard; you’re working in rural areas, uncovering the untold stories of the backroads of the United States.

Christine: It seems to me that all of this is taking place in areas where the public is not informed about the consequences. They just hear that they are going to earn more and make an extra buck, but these are people who don’t have access to the necessary information.

Jolynn: I have written a piece on this.

I believe that some powerful proponents of shale gas extraction are guilty of capitalizing on the socio-economic status and the naivety of the people in the rural areas. Shale gas receives a warm welcome because it promises to address the vulnerabilities in our society : our energy crises, our economy and our desperate socioeconomic disparities.

You cannot overlook the fact that, globally, economies are suffering and many are in need of financial relief and employment opportunities. In this context, you can understand why some people are signing a lease to allow drilling on their land in the hope that shale gas will alleviate their financial burdens. If you ask them about the potential impacts they could encounter, it is a risk many are willing to take because at that moment, a child needs to be sent to school or bread needs to reach the table.  This is the great energy vs environment nexus our world currently faces and it is not limited to fracking. We’ve moved into the era of extreme energy so we’re looking at activities such as deep-sea drilling or the development of the Tar Sands in Canada. We find ourselves in a dangerous position because we need to make money and bolster our economies but it comes at an enormous cost to the finite natural world.

This is why the world is at a crossroads. We need to make a massive decision: are we going to continue with this era of extreme energy, or are we going to try and do things better? Are we going to prioritize the transition to a low or carbon-free future? This is where the South African government is currently sitting. Are we to first create jobs in the community and prioritize the economy? Is it a short-term gain? Is it a long-term gain? This is the research or the homework we have to do. In order to achieve a responsible, long-term energy policy – both locally and internationally – these are the questions that need asking.

Is that homework being done by decision-makers? I am not so sure.

Long-term, there are reasons why shale gas is not necessarily a panacea for the current issues that we’re facing. As far as job creation goes, yes jobs are created. Not nearly as much as some of the optimistic studies have shown, but jobs are created for the basic skills sector. The problem is those jobs only last for about six months to a year or three when that company is in the area doing their drilling and so it’s not something you’re investing in or a twenty or thirty year time frame. As far as energy provision goes, studies are less and less optimistic and resources and estimates have been slashed. So when the US thought the Marseilles Shale would provide a 100 years of energy, those estimates have been slashed and that’s dangerous for a government that’s gambling an energy resource that is reduced to 40%, or less, of the original estimate.
The key issue, at the heart of the energy debates, is the urgent need to curb carbon emissions and the potential for fracking to contribute to the irreversible effects of runaway climate change. A considerable amount of fugitive methane is released during the entire life cycle and methane is up to 25x more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Christine: If we look at the environmental impact on the Karoo, can you explain to us what will happen there?

Jolynn: There will be considerable environmental impacts.

Firstly, on the surface, you need to clear a large area of land; you need to eradicate the vegetation and also create an access road to the site. Thereafter, you need thousands and thousands of trucks to transport the water, chemicals and sand and all the equipment. After the drilling and fracking phases, you have to lay down pipelines to zigzag from every well to central compressor plants and collection points. The surface footprint is huge and it is not just a couple of wellpads; it’s an entire industrialization of what was once a natural ecosystem.

And then you are also introducing the risk of contaminating the air and water sources. The Karoo is a semi-arid area which relies heavily on underground water reserves and, in most cases, it is the only water that farmers and the small towns depend on. I am particularly concerned about air pollution. Where there is a possibility for water pollution in the Karoo, air pollution is a certainty and this a factor that hasn’t received enough attention. There is a high concentration of chemicals being released into the air, the dust, the low level ozone and on the long term, you’re facing the issue of imminent, irreversible climate change.

Stepping back, the fracking debate is not between Shell, the Government and a few farmers. There are many people in the Karoo who are worried about fracking and these are people who live in townships; people who don’t have money to buy replacement water or withstand health impacts. These are the people who I’m doing this project for.

There is also misconception that fracking is only something that those in the Karoo have to worry about. This is hogwash. If you live in South Africa, your government owes you an accountable, responsibly calculated energy future. If you disagree with the decisions being made right now, whether it fracking or the state of our country’s education system or government corruption, you need to stand up and say something about it.  This is particularly true for my younger generation – both locally and abroad. There are decisions being made today that will directly influence our futures; we need to wake up and ensure they are in the best interests of tomorrow.

Christine: So when can we look out for the documentary Unearthed?

Jolynn: We’re working day in and day out to finish the film but we hope to be done with mid year 2013. Our main hurdle at the moment is funding – we have remained independent throughout the production to ensure a balanced, thorough investigation. I have done months of research, filmed over 15 terabytes of footage and have conducted over 400 interviews but to get all of that work into a final product requires a many hours and a couple of miracles. We’re extremely excited to finally release the project and are looking at possibly expanding in 2013.

You can follow our progress on our website and on our Facebook and Twitter channels. We also have a 24 minute film, The Fracking Facadethat has been broadcast across the world, freely available online. It is an important video that exposes a flawed claim often abused in the salespitch for shale gas, the notion that “in a 60 year history, there are no documented cases that hydraulic fracturing has led to the contamination of ground water.”