Award-winning South African fractivist tours Boulder County

Jonathan Deal
Photo by Susan France

A prominent anti-fracking activist from South Africa was in Boulder County this week as part of a national tour of the areas most affected by hydraulic fracturing and other oil/gas operations.

Jonathan Deal accepted the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco on April 15. The $150,000 that accompanies the honor has been dubbed the largest award given to grassroots environmentalists. It is presented annually to one person in each of six continental regions.

Deal won the Goldman Prize for his efforts to secure a nationwide moratorium on fracking in South Africa as chairman of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, and he says he plans to use the prize money to continue that initiative. A businessman and writer who lives in the scenic beauty of the wildlife-rich but water-deprived Karoo region, Deal says he was not an environmental activist when he read a newspaper article in 2011 about Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to obtain exploratory drilling permits in the area.

“I was just someone who enjoyed the outdoors and nature,” he says.

But he soon became the face of the South African movement, combining a viral online presence with an on-the-ground campaign to educate communities about fracking.

“I think we would have been dead in the water if it weren’t for the Internet,” Deal says, referring to the access his group had to fracking-related news in the U.S., including the April 18, 2011, blowout of a Shell well in Pennsylvania’s Bradford County that ended up polluting creeks and rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. He says he and his group used that incident as an example of what could happen in South Africa.

Even though Shell has a cozy relationship with the South African government, the effort succeeded in convincing the country’s leaders to enact a moratorium on fracking.

“The evidence was stacking up to such an extent that they couldn’t ignore it,” Deal says.

The moratorium was in effect for about 18 months before expiring last September, but he remains confident that his group will be able to successfully appeal any exploration permits issued by the minister of minerals.

In addition to meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., Deal’s visit to the U.S. has included two tours of heavily fracked Pennsylvania as well as parts of Colorado, including Rifle and Glenwood Springs, where he documented decimated areas in photos and videos to bring back to his country as a cautionary tale. He says he’s seen some of the houses bought by oil and gas companies and met people who’ve had to leave their homes due to the pollution caused by nearby wells.

Deal has already titled the presentation he will deliver to the South African parliament upon his return: “Breaking the Silence: A Firsthand Account of Fracking in the United States.”

While in Boulder County, he toured some local oil/gas operations with Sam Schabacker, Food & Water Watch’s mountain west director, and attended a May 1 event hosted by Protect Our Colorado.

He told BW that during his meeting with the president, Obama said Deal was doing good work in South Africa, and seemed to take the environmental issues associated with fracking seriously.

Deal says he comes at the fracking issue not with emotion, but with logic and good old-fashioned economics.

“Shale gas mining is not the bridge to the future at all,” he says, explaining that the average production of shale gas in the U.S. declines by 69 percent the first year, meaning that neither the resource nor the jobs are sustainable. “The industry tends to use the word ‘sustainability’ very easily and loosely, and I don’t think they know the meaning of the word.”

He says relying on shale gas will simply delay the transition to renewable energy and further our reliance on fossil fuels, compromising future generations for the sake of a couple of decades of rewards.

“I can’t understand the logic of it,” Deal says, adding that the industry doesn’t include the costly side effects of its operations in its financial calculations, like the taxpayer-funded cleanup of a polluted aquifer, for instance.

The oil and gas industry is very powerful internationally, he says, and that is one reason for his trip to the U.S.

“We are not going to succeed unless we can oppose them with a global coalition,” Deal explains. “It can’t be done on a country-by-country basis.”