Fracking fan’s elastic use of science

By Time of article published Sep 21, 2012

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THERE is always a pile of books in our house waiting to be read. I usually have three or four books on the go at the same time – I love books, I love reading, I love the feel of a book in my hands.

I’m currently drawing up a short list of books to take with me to Zambia next Saturday. This time I’m flying in to Livingstone, so I have to limit myself to just a few books. So I began sorting through the pile next to my chair. One title caught my eye: Extreme Environment by Ivo Vegter. The name rang a vague bell, I remembered that I had read one or two of his columns in the online Daily Maverick. A columnist who liked being provocative. The back cover asked: The most controversial book of 2012?

So I began reading. And rapidly came to the conclusion that far from being the most controversial book of 2012, it was simply the biggest load of crap of 2012.

Absolute crap. Junk science, being provocative for the sake of being provocative, blatant manipulation of facts, and displaying an intellectual arrogance that isn’t matched by intellectual depth.

Take page 11, where he starts constructing the case for fracking. He writes “Enter Lewis Gordon Pugh, OIG. The mainstream media in South Africa had been blithely ignoring what appeared to be just another dull mining venture until Pugh, a well-known environmental campaigner and an ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature gave a rousing anti-fracking speech on 25 March, 2011.”

Really? Here are some headlines from the Cape Times prior to March 25: “‘Shell’s natural gas plan a threat to the Karoo’,” (January 24, 2011); “Shell and Golder dodge gas-drilling questions,” (January 28); “Shell ‘plays Russian roulette with Karoo – Rupert,” January 31); “Karoo mobilises against fracking,” (February 22) and about 10 or 11 more, including my own Man Friday column the day Pugh gave his speech, headlined “The Karoo is too beguiling to frack up.”

And on February 20, a full month before Pugh’s speech, M-Net’s Carte Blanche, which has a viewership of over half a million, aired “Fracking up the Karoo,” a devastating look at the consequences of fracking. That insert went on to win its producer, Liz Fish, (yes, I’m married to her) the David Suzuki Green Producer Award at the Banff World Media Festival in Canada and contributed to her winning the Siemens Pan-African Science Journalist of the Year award.

But that’s the least of Vegter’s sins, errors, omissions and stretchy bendy use of facts: I simply don’t have space to go into them all here, so let’s just look at his big lie, on which all the other lies are based.

Of the fracking fluid, he says “This stuff poses no risks. Once it’s down there, it stays there. The idea that cracks from hydraulic fracturing might somehow reach up through several kilometres of rock, including layers containing brine aquifers, is preposterous... water like everything else on the planet is subject to gravity. Surface spills might pollute groundwater, but water doesn’t flow uphill through miles of rock strata, even if they are permeable or full of cracks, to reach aquifers near the surface.”

Hmmm. I had an e-mail just yesterday from South Africa’s leading Karoo groundwater specialist, Prof Gerrit van Tonder of the Institute for Groundwater Studies at the University of the Free State. He attached a recent presentation based on research he conducted with Fanie de Lange, Prof Gideon Steyl (UOFS) and Dr Luc Chevallier of the Council for Geoscience, and which was presented to the Water Research Commission, and to Shell.

A few quotes will suffice: “Water in parts of the Karoo Basin wants to flow upward and at places where preferential flow paths exists, the flow velocity can be very high (eg 1km/day)”; “Pollution of water due to the migration of fracking fluid and methane is our main concern followed by backflow water (produced water) after fracking has taken place. Backflow water will be an immediate problem after fracking while the pollution of fresh water from the upward migration of fracking fluid and methane will mainly be a problem after shutdown of each well pad in ten to twenty years’ time”; and “The polluted water will be under pressure that wants to move upward. If in preferential pathways (like dykes, faults and cracked cement annuli of boreholes), the pollutants will reach the fresh aquifer above very quickly (even in days).”


Oh, and did I mention that Vegter is also a climate change denialist? Enough said.

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