A Sidelined Society: The sales pitch, seclusion and secrecy around shale gas

Unearthed director, Jolynn Minnaar, spoke at the 2nd Shale Gas Conference held in Johannesburg yesterday. Entitled A Sidelined Society: The sales pitch, seclusion and secrecy around shale gas, her address unpacked the flawed sales pitch presented to South Africa, illustrated the seclusion of rural communities being targeted for gas extraction and revealed the devastating prevalence of non-disclosure agreements that have bought the natural gas industry a spotless track record of “no documented cases of contamination”.

Here are her final words:


Owing to the fact that the South African government serves as a custodian of all of our mineral rights – here I would like to stress custodian – not owner – it is imperative that the citizens are able to access and participate in the decisions that are being made on their behalf.

In closing, I would like to return to my premise that a national energy plan should be:

  • Transparent and accountable to its citizens
  • Informed by a thorough cost-benefit analysis that has taken place in an open, inclusive manner with ALL interested and affected parties’ views equally weighed
  • Finely calculated for the long-term, sustainable interest of the country

As I have shown it is quite clear that we have failed to achieve this.

In fact, if this conference represents where we are in the debate as a country, I am gravely disappointed. Just looking at the speaker program, how could it possibly claim to be one that is “evaluating the potential for shale gas development from all sides of the debate”? It is clear that most of you have decided on your stance – or have a direct financial interest in – in going ahead with shale gas. But that does not mean this debate should follow your agenda. With the majority of speakers and panelists from gas companies – how, over a four day conference are only five hours devoted to “looking at the other side” of shale gas extraction? And, with all due respect, how can Professor Terry Engelder – with a clear, well-known bias toward the gas industry – be the chairman of these discussions?

Where are the other academics, on par with experience or knowledge as those speaking here, that have voiced concern over unconventional gas development? Where are the medical academics to represent the growing international calls from doctors and specialists to put a pause to fracking?  Where are the economists raising alarm over the impacts of deliberately over-estimating resources; the disruption of existing economies; the boom-bust scenarios in drilling communities and the enormous externalities that come with gas development? And answer me this, where are the members of the Karoo community?

As I have said, I am not here representing environmentalists nor the energy industry. I am here as an independent journalist fighting for open, accurate information and a debate that allows everyone to voice their opinion on an equal platform. Yet in all the presentations I have been listening to, based on my research and consulting with people in the US, many issues have been understated or overlooked. So, now, due to the poor representation in the list of speakers, it is down to me to argue on behalf of the medical experts? On behalf of the growing academia arguing that natural gas is not “a cleaner fuel” nor a wise move for a country that is desperately seeking to reduce its carbon emissions? Really?

How are we, as a country, to base our decision on whether or not to go ahead with shale gas development when conferences such as these are still taking place more than two years after ‘fracking’ entered local discourse?

Today I shared only some of findings with you and these issues I have raised in my personal capacity as a journalist.  But I hope that it has been clear in my references and interview excerpts that I am not speaking only for myself. I speak for the hundreds of people calling for an open, inclusive, multi-disciplinary debate on fracking who don’t have R10 000 to get inside. Today, I speak for the thousands of people in the Karoo who have never even heard of you or your plans for gas extraction. Today I am James Plaag,  I am Andries Lottering. And you need to value my voice as much as you do that of Professor Engelder or Chris Faulkner.

For, if you don’t, my premise falls away and a national energy strategy starts becoming confused with a corporate business plan.