When you walk off the main street in Graaff-Reinet and into Derek Light’s office he has to talk to you over a mountain of files. The small-town lawyer, who is taking on a number of the world’s largest energy companies, apologizes for the mess and very carefully moves his pile of lever-arch folders onto the floor. Scribbled on the spines with blue marker pens are the names Falcon Oil and Gas, Bundu Oil and Gas, and Shell.
“I have another eight cabinets full, all to do with fracking,” says Light.
It could have been a quieter twilight of his professional life in the Karoo, when he moved back to his hometown to raise his two children. It could have been measured days of drawing farm-owners’ contracts and settling disputes over wandering sheep. Now he has to tackle big businesses and its threat to turn his backyard into one giant fracking well pad.
“The problem is that the process of explorative fracking is not normal. It’s invasive and has the potential to destroy the environment,” says Light.
“Things like land, air and water are emotional subjects. In Britain, we’ve seen people super-gluing themselves to fences and being incarcerated for wanting to prevent the development going ahead. Those are extreme conditions. People act in that way because they don’t have any other way of resisting. They don’t have the means of accessing the courts and employing the scientists and economists,” he says.
According to Light, fracking will change the face of the Karoo.
“If the reserves are there and you go into well fields, you won’t recognize the country. You will have well pads every 5 kilometers in every direction. You will have flaring, false lighting, masses of vehicles on the road. The air quality will deteriorate. The effect is massive.”
He disagrees with the suggestion by Shell and others that it won’t.
“They will be using multi-well pads, with 30 wells on one site. The point is that rock formation needs to be targeted as broadly as possible; if you can only drill horizontally you would have exhausted the rock within 2.5km. You would have to establish another well 5km away.”
The legal costs to fight fracking have been daunting. Until November 2011, Light was by himself with hardly a budget at all. It was light at the beginning of the tunnel for the lawyer.
“Now there is a big team of councillors, scientists and environmentalists. It would not have been possible without the help of Africa’s third richest man, Johann Rupert. He made it possible to get the expertise of people to take on the biggest companies in the world like Shell,” he says.
The lawyer has no problem taking on the big guns of the fossil fuel industry. He believes that if you are standing on the right side of the law you can take on anyone, no matter how deep their pockets are.
Light also put his own money on the line.
“I know as a professional you have to be objective, but in this case it is my whole community that is being threatened. I want to keep what we have here, it’s a great environment to bring your family up in and it should never be destroyed,” he says.
“I try not to get caught in that sort of emotional debate because it clouds your own judgment. But I can only achieve what I have set out to achieve with the support of individuals. We have just been very lucky that we have sufficient access so far.”
One of his biggest worries is not enough people know about fracking to make an informed decision. According to Light, most people in the cities do not understand the impact this will have on the countryside.
“I remember about two years ago, of all people interviewed in the urban areas, only 50% knew about fracking and of them 15% knew what fracking really was. So I think it’s a question of if it doesn’t affect you nobody cares.”
“It’s moving as quickly as the oil and gas companies are allowed to move. And we’ve said no. We didn’t make the same mistake that the United States made. They allowed it to happen and then tried to regulate it,” he says.
At a time when most people are looking to retire, he looks set to become a household name.
The world refuses to frack down
From London to Perth people have been fighting police, clashing with truck drivers and super gluing themselves to fences all for the same reason—fracking. In South Africa the debate is still in its infancy. Fracking in Australia, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and the United States has provoked violence. In France it was banned completely, Tunisia soon followed.
One of the most violent protests came in a small town in West Sussex, Balcombe in Britain. British oil and gas exploration firm Cuadrilla, built a test well to take samples of rock.
Protestors super glued themselves to fences. The 1,000 protestors also set up camp by the road to the site. In August, police moved in to evict them and it was reported to have cost tax payers £3.7 million ($5.8 million).
In September, Cuadrilla announced it would suspend operations until a new planning application had been approved. Its drilling rig was moved to look for oil elsewhere.
“The drilling rig and associated equipment will be removed from site in September and testing equipment will not be mobilized to site until planning consent has been granted,” says Francis Egan, CEO of Cuadrilla in a statement.
On the other side of the coin, in North Dakota, United States, oil-fracking is seen as a boon. From 2005 to 2011, it helped the state’s economy grow from $4.4 billion to $30.5 billion. Eight thousand wells, producing more than 820,000 barrels a day was just the start. These wells are expected to increase to 50,000.
Among the landowners of North Dakota, 2,000 new millionaires are made every year, according to Bruce Gjovig, founder of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota. Oil royalties range from $50,000 to $100,000 a month.
The quest for oil has drawn in thousands from across America to towns such as Watford City, which has grown from 1,700 to 10,000, according estimates in March.
The fracking revolution has been bitter sweet for some. Many long-term, low income residents have been priced out of their homes through property price rises. The population boom has led to overused roads, polluted streams and created the worst aspects of urbanization.
In South Africa, residents of the Karoo are the latest to join the battle. According to Julius Kleynhans, head of environmental affairs at AfriForum, the biggest problem is only one in five South Africans have heard about fracking.
“At the moment the government is doing nothing. It’s refusing to address the public outcry. They are just power drilling their wants through,” he says.
“Why would they care if the Karoo was contaminated? What they were told was the value of getting this energy game-breaker gas was far more important than the value of the Karoo. The fact that the Eastern Cape has a third of the country’s livestock population; I cannot tell you how important this part of the country plays in production. We also produce more wool, mohair and ostriches than any other part of the country and 25% of the citrus in the country,” says local farmer Doug Stern.
You can be sure this time next year many more Africans will know what fracking is and how it could change their lives.