The High Cost of Cheap Gas in Southern Africa
By Richard Lee
While a fierce debate rages about fracking in South Africa and elsewhere, the Botswana government has been silently pushing ahead with plans to produce natural gas, keeping the country in the dark as it grants concessions over vast tracts of land, including half of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve—the ancestral home of the San people.
A new documentary film—The High Cost of Cheap Gas—has uncovered incontrovertible evidence that drilling and fracking are underway in Botswana and that international companies are planning massive gas operations in the future. But there has been little attempt to inform the public, despite growing international concerns about the harmful effects of natural gas production.
“The people of Botswana have the right to know about developments on this scale and to be given the chance to publicly debate their pros and cons and then decide whether natural gas production is in their best interest,” said Jeffrey Barbee, director of the film, which was funded by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
For more than a decade, the authorities in Botswana—routinely referred to as one of Africa’s best-governed states—have been quietly granting licenses to international companies. South Africa’s SASOL, Australian-based Tamboran Resources, Anglo American, Tlou Energy, Kalahari Energy, Exxaro, and many more are drilling for coal bed methane without any public debate about the industry, particularly the serious threats these large-scale developments pose to the environment and communities.
While activists have been campaigning against the extraction of shale gas and coal bed methane for years, the film documents alarming new evidence from the United States, exposing the damage these industries can inflict on human and animal health, and the environment. Structural problems with the entire production process mean that “unconventional” natural gas like this can end up being “dirtier” than coal—contributing even more to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change.
For a water-scarce country like Botswana, gas extraction—whether through fracking or simple drilling—poses another worrying threat: Coal Bed Methane extraction requires vast amounts of water to be pumped out of the ground, which can significantly lower the water table. In some parts of America, where this process was pioneered, water tables have dropped by as much as 30 meters.
“Lowering the water table in parts of rural Botswana could mean the difference between a community having access to water one day and not the next,” said the film’s director, Jeffrey Barbee. “It might be in Botswana’s best interests to allow fracking but only if all the potential impacts based on the latest science—not just the promises of gas companies—are openly debated and if the regulations are tough enough and are rigorously enforced long after drilling has stopped.”
However, if America is anything to go by, the natural gas industry is adept at undermining, bypassing, or riding roughshod over government regulations and regulators. Astonishingly, fracking companies in the USA are not bound by the Clean Air Act, the Community Right to Know Act, or the Clean Water Act.
And despite Botswana government claims to the contrary, a senior official at SASOL, which is planning thousands of gas wells in Botswana, says in the film that they were not required to produce an environmental management plan. Apparently, SASOL did produce one anyway since it is international best practice, but other companies might be more willing to exploit this inexplicable weakness in the regulations.
In particular, there are fears that the hard-won right of the San to live on, and access water from, their ancestral land will be threatened by the coal bed methane concessions in and around the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Indeed, according to the film, drilling is already taking place within the confines of the world-famous reserve.
Elsewhere in the country, the unfenced buffer zones on the borders of other bio-diversity rich—and economically important—national parks, like Chobe and Kgalagadi, are already being drilled. In fact, it appears that the government has also granted some concessions within Chobe National Park. This endangers not only the local communities but also the largest herd of migrating elephants left in the world.
The gas industry promises jobs and economic development but evidence from the USA shows that the few local jobs are created and that riches usually do not trickle down to the local communities, who have to live with the extraction.
“It is time for the Botswana government to come clean about natural gas operations in the country and to encourage an open and genuine debate so that the population can decide what is best for them and their country—not just an elite few,” said Barbee. “Instead the authorities keep everyone in the dark, particularly the San, who now face another grave threat to their future from Botswana’s secretive dash for gas.”
Until May 2014, Richard Lee was communications and campaigns manager for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.