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2013 Prize: Q&A with Jonathan Deal

April 23, 2013

Jonathan Deal led a successful campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region treasured for its agriculture, beauty and wildlife.

What is life like in the Karoo?

I think there’s a misperception that the Karoo is a ‘throwaway’ place, somewhere that can be easily exploited; because it is dry and arid, people assume it’s not good farmland. I believe this is why Shell underestimated the will of the people and the people’s spiritual connection to the land. But in fact, the Karoo is home to diverse communities and industries. The Karoo is a big producer of meat and vegetables for South Africa. It is one of the biggest mohair export regions in the world, and also produces wine, olives, honey and leatherwork.

How did you learn about Shell’s plans to begin fracking in the Karoo, and what drove you to stop it?

I opened the local newspaper in January 2011 and there was an article about South African business tycoon Johann Rupert having a go at Shell about a new gas station in a town in central Karoo and Shell’s plans to bring fracking to South Africa. I realized there was more to fracking than I had thought – that Shell was behind it, it was a significant threat.

On the spur of the moment I called a national talk radio station and got on air and said that I didn’t think it was a good idea. I didn’t know much about fracking but my instinct was telling me that it was something that should not be pushed into South Africa in a hurry.

Then, I phoned a professor from the University of the Free State I met at a Karoo development conference, and told her what I thought. As a result, when other people asked her about fracking, she told them that I was coordinating a campaign and directed them to me – so by default, I ended up in a leadership position without realizing what was happening.

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You succeeded in getting the government to issue a moratorium on fracking; however, that moratorium has since been lifted – why do you think this happened and what’s been your response?

The moratorium was lifted because of internal pressures in the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). Through the Batho Batho Trust, the ANC has a shareholding interest of more than 20 percent each in Shell’s retail business and Shell marketing in South Africa. It places our government in a very invidious situation where they are both the player and the referee.

When they lifted the moratorium, the Minister of Minerals would not share with us the information on their task team that was set up to investigate fracking, so we sued her in October 2011 and succeeded in obtaining a court order compelling her to give us the information. If the minister decides to issue exploratory licenses, we have developed a legal and scientific document that will lay the foundation for us to approach the High Court, and then the Constitutional Court, with an appeal to suspend the licenses.

How do you respond to claims that drilling in the Karoo would improve South Africa’s economy, create jobs and solve the country’s energy crisis?

It is debatable how sustainable the shale gas industry actually is. Industry studies in the U.S. have shown that wells dry up after three to four years on average, and that they operate at only 15-20 percent of their initial yield after just 12 months. Additionally, the people that need jobs the most do not have the technical qualifications to secure long-term jobs in the shale gas industry.

The impact on South Africa’s water resources would also be enormous. It’s not just a question of where we would get the vast amounts of water needed for fracking. A big issue is that most of South Africa’s water comes from underground aquifers – and the gas companies have not figured out how to drill through and past the aquifers to get to the underlying shale formations without polluting the water.

There is also the problem of fracking waste water. The oil companies say they will be able to recycle the water, but in reality, after you’ve recycled the water three times, it will be contaminated and radioactive, and there is no good way to dispose of it.

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