dependence on coal-fired electricity are galvanizing. Botswana imports half its energy from neighbouring countries.
“This (film) is for the people across the region to know what this industry might entail, so that they can take the best decision,” said Richard Lee, a spokesman for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, a governance group that funded Barbee’s project.
Barbee, who now lives in Johannesburg, was exposed to fracking in his home county of Garfield, Colorado. He said some of those who once supported fracking there now wish it had never come to Garfield. When energy companies proposed fracking in Southern Africa, he decided to make a film – a kind of letter from Garfield, one of America’s most intensively fracked areas, to southern Africans.
“Where I come from in Garfield, Colorado, the gas industry came into the area with very little fanfare,” Barbee said. “Fifteen years later, we are left with an environmental problem in our valley so huge that we don’t yet understand what has been harmed and what has been lost.”
Barbee spoke to activists in Garfield and elsewhere and also interviewed experts from the University of Colorado who cast doubt on assertions of how clean natural gas extraction is, because of emissions and leaks from well heads.
A 2012 Colorado School of Public Health report cited “acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites.” The study focused on toxic emissions in Garfield County from 2008 to 2010.
Drilling in Botswana’s national parks, where tens of thousands of elephants roam, is causing particular concern. Barbee interviewed Botswana farmer Ben Moller, who said the elephants depend on clean water from bore holes along their migration route.
“These elephants bank on these bore holes. If it happens that these bore holes get contaminated, it will be a huge disaster for the elephants,” Moller said in the film.
Coal-bed methane extraction requires pumping large amounts of water out of the ground. The water can be clean, but can also be highly saline or radioactive, according to studies cited by the film.
“The industry says the water can be used for crops and animals. I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the American experience,” said the film’s producer, Mira Dutschke.
The extraction process can also cause the water table to drop by several yards, according to experts quoted in the film, a development that would be alarming in Botswana, a dry country with vast swaths of desert.
Botswana’s government released a statement in parliament last week saying the water supplies would be protected. It described Barbee’s film as a “smear campaign” and called on lawmakers to “defend the sovereignty of our state”.
“This is not a smear campaign in any way,” Barbee said. “It’s a wake-up call to suggest let’s all have a discussion about whether this activity should occur, and where is it best for it to occur for the people of Botswana and for the wildlife they’re so famous for protecting.”
Barbee also worries about his adopted home, where Shell South Africa has proposed extensive fracking and gas extraction in the Karoo, a vast desert area in the country’s south. Shell, which is planning to invest about US$1bil (RM3.2bil) in the development, says it is “the game-changing opportunity that South Africa needs”.
Shell South Africa’s chairman, Bonang Mohale, said last year that gas extracted through fracking could “address job creation, benefit the poor in South Africa, stimulate the economy and secure energy supply for South Africans.”
After controversy erupted in South Africa over the proposed Karoo project, the government introduced a moratorium on fracking in 2011. Although the country lifted a ban on fracking just over a year ago, the moratorium remains in place, the Business Day newspaper reported last month.
Also last month, the government proposed regulations on gas exploration that would govern fracking and called for public comment. Opponents of fracking are expected to take legal action to try to prevent it from going ahead.
Under the proposed regulations, the South African government could have up to a 50% stake in gas extraction operations.
Critics are sceptical of Shell’s claims that the poor will benefit from such projects. They argue that while jobs are required at the outset to build well infrastructure, these are transient functions typically performed by highly skilled outsiders.
“The riches of mining in Africa have never, ever been shown to trickle down to the people who have to live with the consequences of it,” Jonathan Deal, spokesman of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, told Barbee. – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy Tribune Information Services