To evaluate government policy you do not need to go any further than your own eating habits. I am sure you have that friend who arrives raving about a new restaurant or bar in your local city.
Soon they convince other friends of yours that this is the new hip place to be, but while you watch all your friends get involved you’re stuck on a massive project and cannot get away.
Months pass and to your surprise, your friends stop going. Complaints rain in thick and fast – the quality of the food is not what they expected, people fall sick, the costs are far higher than what was promised and better options open up closer to home. The day arrives that you can finally go – are you going to follow in the footsteps of your friends and check out the place they’re abandoning or are you going to move on to the new alternatives that they have found? It’s a no brainer – they’ve already made the mistake, you don’t need to. So you skip it and move on.
Unfortunately, the government shows a different way of thinking. This year’s Budget by all accounts is a good one, but there is one line that stands out like a red flag: “Over the medium term we will pursue the exploration of shale gas to provide an additional energy source for our economy.”
South Africa is about 10 years behind the curve, and while we talk of exploration others are already fleeing this cockroach infested industry. The US is the birthplace of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) and holds the second-largest reserves of shale gas, but even there supporters are dropping like flies. Fracking has been banned in Los Angeles, five cities in Colorado, Dallas, Mora County in Texas, and the entire states of Vermont and Hawaii. A new law in Pennsylvania – home to some of the oldest and largest fracking operations in the US – allows cities and counties the authority to ban fracking in their jurisdiction, an option many are in the process of taking up.
Internationally, fracking has been prohibited in France, Germany, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Ireland, Quebec in Canada, and Cantabria and Valladolid in Spain. Yet South Africa still thinks it’s a good idea.
This is not an argument of enduring a necessary evil to help boost the economy; that would be mining. Mining destroys vast tracts of land, poisons ground water and leads to dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. But mining also provides over 1.3 million jobs, plays a part in the production of almost all the products we consume, accounts for over half of our foreign exchange earnings and contributes a large part to the gross domestic product.
The minerals and resources we get from mining can only be found deep in the ground and until we change our consumption habits we have no other option. Like it or not, we need mining. Fracking, on the other hand, leaves a permanent scar of environmental destruction with yet unknown consequences to ground water, contributes very few jobs in the long run as sites are largely automated, and has little need for support services or downstream economic activity. And all this is to harvest a resource that the sun gives us every day.
The power and consistency of clean energies are not yet a match for dirty fuels such as gas, but progress is being made at an impressive rate. Instead of investing huge amounts of time, money and policy into making fracking clean and safe (an impossible goal), let’s invest the same into making solar and wind effective.
* Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein