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Don’t trust Shell April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Don’t trust Shell

(This column was first published on 2011-03-30 at News24 here)

Shell wants us to believe that in exploring for and extracting natural gas from underground layers of shale in the Karoo using the polluting and extremely water-intensive technique of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, they have all of our best interests as well as those of the environment at heart.

They must also think us the most gullible halfwits this side of the Niger Delta.

In a recent full-page newspaper ad, the multi-billion dollar oil giant’s Bonang Mohale writes passionately about his company’s “commitments to the Karoo”, promising not to despoil and pollute it in the way fracking has been documented to mess up formerly pristine landscapes and water sources  elsewhere. He describes natural gas as a “more environmentally friendly” option and a “cleaner energy source” and twice refers to its role in building a “sustainable energy future”.

Pure greenwash! In 2008 the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled Shell’s use of the word “sustainable” in an ad about its involvement in extracting oil from Canadian tar sands “misleading” and in violation of industry codes for “environmental claims”, “substantiation” and “truthfulness”. The same standards ought to apply here.

In complete contradiction to their PR-laced public utterances, Shell has an atrocious environmental and human rights record, as even a cursory glance into their skeleton-packed closet reveals:

• In County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, a fishing and farming community has been fighting a protracted battle against Shell’s plans to build a pipeline and gas refinery that has involved violent clashes with police, hunger strikes, arrests, and masked men beating up local activists and sinking an outspoken opponent’s fishing boat.

• In 1995 Greenpeace activists stopped Shell from sinking the Brent Spar oil platform, laden with tonnes of toxic and radioactive waste, at sea.

• Shell has a long and sinister history of environmental destruction and human rights abuses in Nigeria. More than a thousand oil spill cases have been brought against the company in the Niger Delta, where it continues to illegally flare natural gas, a practice that causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined. Long implicated in bribing local officials and politicians, WikiLeaks cables reveal that Shell inserted employees into all main ministries of the Nigerian government and “knew everything that was being done in those ministries”. Shell is deeply implicated in the Nigerian government’s 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 fellow environmental and human rights activists and in 2009 agreed to pay their families $15.5m as a “humanitarian gesture”.

• Environmentalists have warned that Shells’ Sakhalin II oil and gas operations in Russia will contribute to pushing the critically endangered Western Pacific Grey Whale towards extinction.

• Shell has plans to drill for oil just 30 kilometres from Western Australia’s ecologically sensitive Ningaloo Reef and off the coast of the USA’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

• Shell has contributed more than a million dollars towards defeating legislation to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California.

• Shell is coming under increasing pressure from environmentalists, indigenous communities and its own shareholders over its extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, which involves strip mining large swaths of forest and wetlands and uses and pollutes vast quantities of water while generating at least five times more carbon emissions than conventional sources of oil.

If Shell were a person, we’d have no hesitation in recognising this list as the shocking resume of a sociopathic career criminal whom we’d never let anywhere near our homes or children. We cannot afford to trust them with the Karoo.

Note to Shell: Even in the extremely unlikely event of you being able to convince us that you are capable of producing gas in the Karoo without wasting and polluting our water, we wouldn’t want you to. We don’t even want you to explore for it. We want you to leave the gas in the ground. The age of carbon-based fossil fuels – of coal, oil and natural gas – is coming to a close and until you propose to help us develop our abundant, clean, green and truly sustainable renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power, stay out of the Karoo.

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Arnie the eco-warrior April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment.
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Arnie the eco-warrior

(This column was first published on 2011-03-23 at News24 here)

Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger has been inciting Americans to rise up in revolt to overthrow the dirty industry that is holding back a clean, renewable energy future. And no, I’m not talking about his latest Hollywood blockbuster.

After expressing his admiration for the popular rebellions against dictators in North Africa and the Middle East at a recent US Department of Energy summit, the former Governator of California encouraged similar actions against American oil and gas barons: “we want to overturn the old energy order”.

Given the very broad definition of what qualifies as eco-terrorism under legislation like the US Patriot Act and given that the FBI has identified greens as the “number one domestic terror threat”, you’d think that Arnie would, at the very least, have been subjected to some form of official knuckle-rapping. He got away scot-free.

If ordinary citizens act on Schwarzenegger’s advice, they’re unlikely to be so lucky. The case of Tim DeChristopher proves my point.

In 2008, DeChristopher attended a demonstration outside an oil and gas lease auction organised by the US Bureau of Land Management. A last minute fire-sale by the outgoing administration of George W Bush, the auction was to distribute oil and gas drilling rights on remote patches of public land at bargain-basement prices.

By happy coincidence DeChristopher found himself inside the auction rather than demonstrating against it from the outside. On the spur of the moment, he decided to monkey-wrench proceedings by “participating” in the auction. He entered outlandishly large offers, drove up prices, out-bid oil and gas companies and ended up “buying” drilling rights to 22 500 acres of land in 13 parcels for some $1.7 million before he was stopped by a federal agent. By then he’d effectively scuttled the entire auction.

I consider DeChristopher’s action a brilliantly creative example of peaceful civil disobedience. The US legal system considers it a crime, even though the entire auction was subsequently declared illegitimate by the Obama administration. On the 3rd of March 2011, DeChristopher was convicted of two felony counts in a Salt Lake City court and now faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of as much as $750 000. I agree with noted climate activist and author Bill McKibben, who tweeted “The government should give him a medal, not a sentence”.

DeChristopher’s criminalisation is neither unusual nor unexpected, of course. So-called democratic governments around the world have been conducting a low-level war against people prepared to act non-violently in defence of the environment for years. Militant groups of animal rights activists bore the initial brunt, but in recent times even your average garden variety eco-organisation is being targeted.

Like the FBI, the UK’s National Public Order Intelligence Unit, a private company largely funded by government, but accountable to no one in particular, has recently been revealed to maintain lists of “extremists” and employ undercover surveillance officers to infiltrate green organisations. Major companies are getting in on the act, too. Scottish Resources, E.ON and Scottish Power, three of the UK’s biggest energy companies, as well as Monsanto, one the world’s largest peddlers of genetically modified seeds, have employed private security outfits to conduct covert intelligence-gathering and monitoring operations against eco-activists.

Closer to home, the local nuclear industry is said to cultivate a watch-list of prominent anti nuke-activists and last December 14 Earthlife Africa members were arrested and charged with “illegal gathering” and “public indecency” for picketing outside a public hearing of the government’s flawed IRP2 electricity master plan.

Is it just me or are these symptoms of a world in which what’s right and what’s wrong has been turned upside down? Bradley Manning, the suspected WikiLeaks whistleblower, is potentially facing the death penalty for exposing government wrongdoings ranging from misdemeanours to war crimes. Bankers involved in precipitating a devastating global financial disaster get bailed-out instead of jailed. Not a single BP bigwig gets charged with negligent ecocide in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’m with Arnie on this one. We need to support people like Tim DeChristopher and stand up to those who threaten life on our planet for the sake of short-term material gains and financial profits. Call me an eco-terrorist if you like.

A farewell to nukes April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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A farewell to nukes

(This column was first published on 2011-03-16 at News24 here)

I’ve had it with nuclear power. And I’ve had enough of nuclear pundits telling me how cheap and clean and green and low-carbon, oh and yes, how safe it is.

Repeated hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Daiichi, the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant; engineers scrambling desperately to stop several plutonium reactors from melting down by using “innovative” (read “improvised”) techniques; a spent fuel storage pond on fire; radioactivity being released into the atmosphere; and traumatised politicians who keep enlarging the evacuation zone look anything but safe to me, not even from half a world away.

Claims that under the circumstances Japan’s nuclear installations have done remarkably well and that things could be much worse and could never get as bad as Chernobyl don’t fill me with comfort either. How bad do things have to get for them to be disastrous? Just ask the tens of thousands of people who’ve been evacuated from their homes around Fukushima.

I have no time for nuclear engineers who assure us that their reactors were designed to cope with the worst possible case scenario and then complain that they were not prepared for the severity of this particular combination of natural calamities – a more than puzzling admission in a country as prone to large earthquake and tsunami double whammies as Japan.

It constantly amazes me that people whose entire industry is based on quantum mechanics, which itself is all about statistical probabilities, can so habitually overlook the fact that even catastrophic natural events with exceedingly low probabilities have a nasty tendency of happening unexpectedly.

And don’t tell me that we’re completely safe from earthquakes in South Africa. The Milnerton earthquake (estimated magnitude: 6.3) which struck the West Coast 200 years ago may have been much weaker than the latest Japanese shaker (magnitude 9.0), but its epicentre was also much closer to the location of Koeberg, currently our only atomic energy plant. The most recent environmental impact report for a further nuclear plant at Koeberg suggests that, taking into account statistical errors, the seismic risk could be significantly higher than the rating typically used in nuclear plant designs.

While nuclear accidents in various parts of the world are blamed on earthquakes, tsunamis, human error by incompetent operators and flawed, previous-generation reactor designs, we’re forever asked to believe that it can’t happen here. Which is exactly what the people of Fukushima believed until a few days ago.

I haven’t even mentioned the environmental havoc caused by uranium mining (think radioactive streams in the Witwatersrand), the health hazards associated with every-day operation, the ever-present threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that nuclear energy is neither carbon-neutral nor a panacea for climate change, or that nobody really knows what to do with the high-level waste accumulating worldwide which will remain dangerously radioactive for a very long time.

The time to argue that we need nuclear power because it causes less environmental damage and loss of lives through pollution and climate change than energy generated by burning oil, coal or natural gas has come and gone. The implication that our only energy options involve either carbon-based fossil fuels or nuclear power is a red herring.

In fact, the best reason why we should give up on nukes is simply that we don’t need them. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the lion’s share, if not all, of our electricity needs can be met cost-competitively by truly green, long-term sustainable and renewable energy sources including solar and wind power.

In South Africa, the nuclear industry has the ear of government and unless we start shouting our opposition we’ll soon have more nuclear power rather than less. It’s on the cards and it will happen unless we stop it.

Now is the time to consign this dangerous and out-dated technology to the dustbin of history. We should have abandoned nuclear power after Three Mile Island in 1979. We should have outlawed it after Chernobyl in 1986. And we should most definitely get rid of it for good after Fukushima in 2011. Enough is enough.

Who cares about rhinos anyway? April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Who cares about rhinos anyway?

(This column was first published on 2011-03-09 at News24 here)

Last year’s furore over organised rhino poaching elicited widely contrasting responses from South Africans. Bunny-huggers turned into rhino-huggers by their hundreds and declared the crimes bad enough to warrant the re-institution of the death penalty.

Others considered the outrage over the illegal hunting of a couple of glorified zoo animals as overly emotional and insignificant in a country plagued with many bigger problems from chronic poverty to large-scale unemployment.

It might sound disingenuous, but as far as I’m concerned both of these opinions contain a kernel of truth (although, rhino-huggers, you’ll never get my vote on the death penalty…).

The survival of a single endangered species like the rhino is insignificant in the sense that it merely represents the tip of an iceberg of animals and plants that are threatened by extinction, not because of the nefarious operations of a few crime syndicates, but because of our own activities. Yours and mine.

We should care about butchered rhinos in the hope that such high-profile incidents will put the spotlight on the much, much larger, global crisis of biodiversity.

So today’s take-away phrase is mass extinction. The one we humans are currently in the process of precipitating.

Brand new species usually evolve at more or less the same rate as others die out, keeping overall biodiversity at a relatively constant level. When die-offs outpace new arrivals too rapidly, however, mass extinctions literally change the face of the earth by almost wiping the biological slate clean.

Periods of major mass extinction in which 75% or more of the earth’s plant and animal species disappear forever are natural phenomena that have occurred five times in the geological past, the most well-know example being the cataclysmic event that killed off the dinosaurs and many other species about 65 million years ago.

Exactly what causes such extinctions has been hotly debated by scientists for decades. Clearly it’s complicated, but the main culprits are asteroid or comet impacts and volcanic eruptions on a scale big enough to make Eyjafjallajökull (the Icelandic volcano that grounded Europe’s commercial airline fleet last year) look like the geological equivalent of a pimple. The fossil record also suggests that extinctions tend to be more common during relatively warm, “greenhouse” phases of the earth’s history compared to the cooler “icehouse” periods.

Today, some researchers are predicting that we’re on course for a sixth mass extinction. About a fifth of all vertebrate species are currently considered “threatened”. Increasing numbers of freshwater fish, shark and ray species, reef-building corals, turtles, birds, amphibians, insects and plants are heading for the evolutionary exit. Get ready to wave good-bye to the Sumatran rhinoceros and orang-utan, the Philippine crocodile, the mountain gorilla, the red wolf, the western gray whale and many more critically endangered animals.

This time round the causes are much less ambiguous than they are for previous mass extinctions. No asteroid or comet. No infernal volcanic outpourings. Just us humans causing climate change, habitat loss, deforestation, pollution, over-fishing and spreading invasive species and disease.

A new study published in the scientific journal Nature last week confirms that extinction is happening between 3 and 12 times faster today than would be expected if there was no crisis and that we can expect a new mass extinction with unpredictable consequences within as little as 300 years unless we act now.

And that’s why we shouldn’t just dismiss rhino poaching as a liberal non-issue and also why we shouldn’t fetishise media-friendly species like the rhino at the expense of the rest of the endangered biosphere.

Forget the schmaltzy appeals to help ensure that your grandchildren live to see rhinos in the wild or even the argument that humans have a moral obligation to preserve the other life forms with whom we share our planet – although personally, I’m rather partial to both of those arguments.

Help to save the rhino and all the other species for the entirely unemotional and selfish reason that we simply can’t afford to lose them. Our economies, our livelihoods and our own long-term survival as a species literally depend on them for food and medicine, to pollinate our crops, purify our water, oxygenate our air and fertilise our soil.

Caltex and the law of the jungle April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment.
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Caltex and the law of the jungle

(This column was first published on 2011-02-23 at News24 here)

Caltex, your friendly neighbourhood petrol dealers, have a dirty little secret they’d rather you not hear too much about.

Last week, a judge in the small Ecuadorian jungle town of Lago Agrio fined the US oil giant Chevron more than $8bn for causing devastating environmental damage in a million acre oil concession of remote Amazon rainforest.

“So it’s not really Caltex, is it?” you might think, but Caltex is just the brand name of Chevron in South Africa. It’s the same company. “But it’s not really a secret either!” Well, judging by the scant exposure the story has received in the mainstream press, it might as well be. Unpleasant things that happen in some God-awful, swampy Latin American backwater simply don’t get a lot of media coverage. It’s actually not little either, but it sure as hell is dirty!

The relevant timeline looks approximately like this:

• 1964-1990: the US oil company Texaco is the sole operator in the oil field, extracting crude oil from some 327 wells.

• 1992: Texaco leaves Ecuador.

• 1993: The original lawsuit is filed against Texaco in New York.

• 2001: Chevron (aka Caltex) merges with Texaco, taking on the company’s liabilities in Ecuador.

• 2003: After Chevron succeeds in having the case transferred out of US courts, it is re-filed, as a class action suit on behalf of 30 000 residents, in Ecuador.

• 2011: After more than 17 years and numerous allegations of bribery, espionage, delays, dirty tricks, evidence-tampering and cover-ups, the Ecuadorian court hands Chevron one of the largest environmental fines on record.

Between 1972 and 1990, Chevron (then Texaco) deliberately dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste sludge, containing carcinogens and other toxins, into rivers, streams and unlined pits. Just to be clear: this was not a case of accidental leakage or negligence as in the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but hazardous waste, intentionally pumped into the Amazon ecosystem.

Along the way Chevron also managed to spill millions of gallons of crude oil and left behind as many as 1000 open waste pits that continue to leak dangerous pollutants into the air, soil and groundwater. And all of that in an area where the locals are dependant on river water for cooking, fishing, drinking and cleaning.

The impact has been devastating, effectively destroying large tracts of rainforest, damaging crops and killing farm animals. The health of the local population has plummeted, with the risk of cancers, miscarriages and birth defects all on the increase. Indigenous communities and their traditional way of life have been decimated.

Chevron has called the court ruling a “product of fraud”, “illegitimate and unenforceable”. The company has never accepted responsibility for its dirty legacy in Ecuador and it is not about to do so now, promising the plaintiffs a “lifetime of litigation”. In their final argument before the court, they claimed that no negligence was established or damage proven by the plaintiffs. According to them neither the environment nor a single human being has been harmed.

Of course they would respond that way. What precedent would it set, after all, if a bunch of semi-civilised Third-Worlders could successfully sue a multinational corporation?

What the company, which in 2010 tripled its second quarter profits to $5.4bn compared to a year earlier, has done, is spend millions on lobbying and PR efforts to clean up its public image. Among other things, Chevron launched their “We Agree” ad campaign – you may have seen it on DSTV – portraying themselves as concerned, eco-conscious and socially responsible corporate citizens.

Don’t believe a word of it! Until they face the music and pay their fair share of what’s necessary to fix the problems they have caused in Ecuador, all of that remains transparently cosmetic. And for every tank-full of Caltex with Techron® – that’s the magic petrol additive that injects your car with an army of tiny little people who tirelessly scrub and clean your engine as you drive – you also get a glob of oily, ugly, smelly and deadly rainforest pollution.

Gasland Karoo April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, South Africa.
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Gasland Karoo

(This column was first published on 2011-02-16 at News24 here)

I have seen the future of the Karoo and it looks grim.

No, I haven’t turned clairvoyant overnight, but I did just watch Gasland, the Oscar-nominated documentary about extracting natural gas from underground shale formations in the United States.

In most cases, the extent of environmental disasters only becomes apparent with hindsight, when it’s too late. On precious few occasions do we get an inkling of what environmental impact an activity is likely to have because others have done us the dubious favour of acting as guinea pigs. By highlighting the devastating effects a hideously messy gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is having in the US, Gasland affords us a chilling vision of what is going to happen to the Karoo if Royal Dutch Shell and others, who have started to explore for gas shales in the region, have their way.

When an oil and gas company offers Josh Fox, the film’s director, nearly $100 000 to lease his piece of land located above the huge Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania, he sets out on a cross-country tour that opens his eyes to the dangers of fracking. The technique, which involves injecting millions of litres of water, sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals into boreholes at high pressure to release natural gas trapped in layers of gas shale as tiny bubbles, was developed by the American company Halliburton.

In 2005, then US Vice President Dick Cheney, who just happened to have been Halliburton’s Chairperson and CEO between 1995 and 2000, helped to push an Energy Bill through Congress that exempted the activities of oil and gas companies from the existing Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and various other environmental laws and regulations. Known as the “Halliburton loophole”, this opened the floodgates on one of the most destructive episodes of natural resource exploitation in history.

Confronted with some 450 000 fracking wells in 34 states, Fox documents a litany of complaints from people living near gas drilling operations: domestic groundwater wells contaminated with natural gas, fracking chemicals and other toxins; farm animals losing hair and weight; chronic headaches and more debilitating human health problems; hazardous air pollution; open wastewater pits; hugely increased truck traffic; mini refineries, pipelines and storage facilities at every well site; natural gas bubbling from formerly pristine creeks; and, perhaps most notoriously, several households whose tap water can be set alight. We can look forward to all of these in the Karoo!

The gas industry doesn’t think there’s a problem. Fracking is adequately regulated, poses no real threat to underground drinking water, doesn’t need to be investigated any further and reports to the contrary are incorrect, they say. Pro-drilling groups like Energy in Depth have gone as far as writing a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences telling them that Gasland should be ineligible for a best documentary feature Oscar, prompting Fox to publicly defend the validity of his film in a point-by-point rebuttal.

There are several parallels between what has happened in the US and what may well happen in the Karoo: stunningly beautiful big-sky landscapes, sparsely inhabited by salt-of-the-earth type people, sitting on a petrified ocean of gas billions. If American regulators were unable to protect their citizens and environment from an industry that’s clearly under-funded in the moral conscience department, what are our chances of saving the Karoo from a similar fate?

In the words of Lisa Bracken, who appears in Gasland:

“The corporate business model is to come into an area, develop it as fast as you can and if you trash anything you make the people who you impact prove it. You make ‘em argue it in a court of law and the last person standing gets bought off and you move on.”

It’s not too late to prevent the Karoo from turning into another Gasland. The time to stop this unique, ecologically fragile, historically, archaeologically and geologically invaluable national treasure from being trashed for a few dirty gas dollars is right now!