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The world distribution of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations for natural gas shows that democracy is alive and well. While oil and gas exploration is usually shrouded in abuse of power, unpopular laws, and David versus Goliath battles, the distribution of where in the world fracking takes place and where it is banned shows an interesting pattern.
Major fracking operations take place (with population density by people per km2 attached) in: Australia (3), Canada (4), Russia (8) and the US (35). Argentina (14) and Mexico (60) are putting policies in place to speed up the roll-out of drilling. South Africa (43) has recently approved draft regulations for the use of fracking.
The procedure has been banned or placed under temporary and renewable moratoriums in France (117), Bulgaria (66), Luxembourg (208) and the state of New York (160). France is considered to have one of the largest extractable reserves of shale gas in Europe but public protest over the environmental concerns has led to a prohibition of exploration. The same motives are stated in all countries where fracking has been prohibited. The Netherlands (497), Denmark (130) and Switzerland (195) are exploring the feasibility but face opposition from the public.
While exceptions do exist, such as Germany (225) and Poland (123), an interesting relationship emerges: where fracking can be done in a way that brings benefits to the majority of the people while only harming a minority, opposition groups are not strong enough to convince governments to seek alternative sources of energy supply.
It also throws light on to the dark noise of the fracking debate: if fracking did not cause harm to nature and humanity, why are those countries with the highest population densities the most adamant about stopping it happening?
The debate is not whether it is harmful to the environment and those who live in the vicinity of the operations, it is whether it is harmful enough to care.
In Australia, the US, Russia and now, shamefully, South Africa, where the destructive nature of the process can be hidden from the public eye, affect the lives of a few citizens, and damage an environment not used by many, it finds its way into law. In areas where people have to deal personally with the consequences of their cheap energy, it doesn’t.
While South African legislators look to drive fracking exploration forward more than 20 years after the US started, the leaders in the game are hesitant to continue. Shell has pulled out of many shale reserves in the US, saying results are not meeting initial expectations. Legislators in Pennsylvania, once the poster child of US shale gas, are considering a bill to halt all new drilling in the state as it battles with contaminated water and other disruptions to society.
Despite initial expectations, fracking is not a fast process. It will take decades before cracking open the Karoo reserves delivers the benefits of cheap energy to those living far from it.
The real question to ask is: what else can be done in those decades? When fears of sanctions arose in South Africa, it didn’t take us long to find a way to turn coal into fuel. South Africa invented the CAT scan, performed the first heart transplant, and gave birth to PayPal. Ability is not lacking.
Is it fair that the sparsely populated Karoo should be sacrificed to support the demands of those living in dense urbanisation? Or can we be smarter than that?
* Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein.