Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fracking and Farming Don't Mix

Shell wants to frack South Africa and that has two farmers concerned – concerned enough to fly to the Marcellus drilling region and check out how things are going here. Doug Stern and Lukie Strydom want to learn everything they can about the impacts of highly industrialized drilling on farms and communities. When they return home they’ll report back to local governments and farming associations.

Landowners in South Africa do not own the rights to minerals beneath them; those are reserved for the country as a whole. So the first time people heard about potential drilling in the Karoo was this January. Nobody knew what fracking was – not only was there a lack of information about unconventional drilling, but there was a lack of transparency in the process.

Doug Stern, SA rancher
Shell Oil applied for licenses to develop wells on 90,000 square kilometers (34,750 sq. miles), and promised to conduct environmental studies. But given the water-intensive drilling process and the extremely arid environment – annual rainfall can be as low as 8 inches in some parts – the South African government placed a moratorium on permits.

Doug Stern has been farming his bit of the Karoo for the past 35 years. His spread encompasses about 16,000 acres on which he grazes 3,000 sheep and 600 head of cattle. He also cultivates – and irrigates – about 160 acres of pasture and forage crops. Right now, he said, South Africa is self-sufficient with respect to raising food for the people. But what will happen once drill rigs move onto the farms – especially in this arid region?

Although Shell has promised they won’t contaminate the soil or water, Stern is concerned about pollution. Even without pollution he feels the drilling doesn’t make sense when water is such a scarce commodity. He fears farmers and ranchers will suffer.

Another big concern is drilling traffic. After visiting Pennsylvania, Stern doesn’t think the Karoo roads are suited to the number of trucks required for shale gas drilling. “Our roads aren’t capped (no stone and oil or asphalt. They’re just dirt.” Dust would settle on the vegetation that his livestock grazes on. They won’t want to eat, he said, and that would translate into lost production.

Lukie Strydom (on left)
Farmers in South Africa view themselves as custodians of the land. “But this drilling,” Stern said, “has no respect for the long term impacts on the productivity of the land.”

Lukie Strydom says he’s taking home a long list of lessons. Topping the list: don’t rush into it. “If the drillers can get the casings done right, maybe the process will be safer,” he said. Second: don’t allow the companies to drill until the people have all the information they need.

Most importantly, though, “We must formulate a strategy,” Strydom said. When they get back to the Karoo, he and Stern hope to get farmers and representatives from local and regional governments and non-government organizations to discuss how to move forward for the good of all.

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