South African Anti-Fracking Activist Calls for Global Alliance

“We’ve got to stop doing this,” said Jonathan Deal, with a sense of urgency tinged with discomfort.

Deal could well have been talking about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the oil and gas drilling practice he has tirelessly fought to stop in his native South Africa.

But at this moment, he was talking about the energy-guzzling extravaganza in full swing all around us at a gathering in Washington, DC.  As we eyed hundreds of people in cocktail attire partaking of bounteous food and wine across a chandeliered room, I sensed Deal’s inner discord: this lavish event was in honor of him.

Deal had just been awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize for his successful grassroots effort to win a moratorium on fracking in South Africa.  And on this mid-April spring night at the Ronald Reagan Building near the National Mall, a magnificent reception followed a ceremony to honor and applaud Deal’s success, along with that of the five other remarkable 2013 prize winners.

While Deal accepted his award with humility and grace, and was deeply grateful for the spotlight it shined on his work, he was making an important point.  Unless we rein in our energy consumption, his fight will have been for naught. And it must start with each of us, here and now, addressing the discord between what we know and what we do.

An Uphill Battle

With no prior experience in grassroots organizing, Deal orchestrated a campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region of the eastern Cape that he had come to know and love.  Famed for its beauty, the Karoo boasts the richest diversity of succulents on the planet, and is home to many unique species of lizards and tortoises, as well as the riverine rabbit, one of the most endangered mammals in all of Africa.

The region also supports a diverse and bountiful array of agricultural products, from wool and meat to fruits, olives, wine and honey.

The Karoo is also underlain by vast deposits of gas-bearing shale.  South Africa is estimated to have the fifth largest volume of shale gas in the world – some 7.3 percent of the global total – and most of that gas is in the Karoo.

In early 2011, Deal read of plans by the oil company Royal Dutch Shell to apply for exploratory permits to drill for natural gas in the Karoo.  The drilling would be done by fracking, which involves blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure so as to fracture the shale rock and release the oil and gas it holds. Some of the chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens.  Each fracking well consumes 1-8 million gallons of water.

Deal, who had written a book on the Karoo, took on the mantle of activist to save his beloved land from the onslaught of drilling rigs and tanker trucks, and the threats of water stress, well failures and toxic pollution.

Deal formed the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) and led a team of scientists, legal experts, and volunteers in preparing a report on the risks of fracking in the Karoo. TKAG delivered the report, which called for a moratorium on fracking, to President Jacob Zuma.  Deal also challenged Shell executives to debate the merits of fracking at public meetings and in the media.

Deal’s hard work and personal sacrifices – he poured his family’s savings into the campaign – paid off when, in April 2011, the South African government announced a nationwide moratorium on fracking.

But the moratorium lasted only 17 months: in September 2012, the government lifted it.  Still, Deal and TKAG had gotten South African officials to take the dangers of fracking more seriously, and studies are now under way to more carefully examine fracking’s risks to the Karoo environment.

Hands Across the Ocean

Ten days after the ceremony in Washington, DC, Deal was in Elmira, New York, sharing his experience in South Africa with community members concerned about the threats of fracking in their region.

“We’ve kept (the oil companies) at bay for two-and-a-half years,” Deal said, “and we’re going for three.”

He told the group assembled at Trinity Lutheran Church that three companies, including Shell, have applied to the government to drill on 230,000 square kilometers of land in South Africa.

We can’t beat this country by country, Deal said. There needs to be “a global alliance.”

Natural gas was once viewed as the “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future—a lower-carbon energy source that could help the world transition from dirtier oil and coal to more climate-safe renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

But thanks to fracking’s ability to exploit vast reserves of once-inaccessible shale gas, natural gas has become, in the words of climate blogger Joe Romm, a “bridge to nowhere”: it will merely perpetuate fossil fuel dependence and lead the world into catastrophic climate change.

While in the United States, Deal worked to start building the alliances he feels are necessary to stop the global march of fracking. In addition to visiting communities across the country, he is strengthening ties with Americans Against Fracking, a coalition of some 270 disparate organizations, including 350.orgBreast Cancer ActionFood and Water Watch, and New Yorkers Against Fracking.

Meanwhile, back in his native South Africa, Deal’s own organization will get a significant boost from his Goldman recognition: Deal is giving his $150,000 in prize money to TKAG to strengthen the fight to save the Karoo.

Watch a short video, narrated by Robert Redford, of Jonathan Deal’s story and work by clicking here.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.


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