South African in Pittsburgh to study impact of shale gas drilling

Wants to find hidden costs before country opens land to drillers


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"We have to stop drilling from wherever this guy is from!" yelled Fred McIntyre after shaking hands with Pierre Heistein, who is from South Africa.

Mr. Heistein, with a notepad in hand, listened and nodded as Mr. McIntyre surrounded him with the region's most vocal anti-drilling advocates after a recent panel in Oakland.

Former city councilman Doug Shields lashed out at drilling company tactics. Ron Gulla told the story of how nearby drilling ruined his Hickory farm. When Mr. Heistein, 26, explained just why he was standing 8,000 miles from South Africa in a Pittsburgh Filmmakers screening room, the conversation took on a "save yourself!" tone.

He was here on a one-man listening tour, charged by a South African advocacy group with preparing public comment on the potential economic impact of shale gas drilling in the country's Karoo region. South Africa recently lifted a moratorium on drilling in the massive African reserve, but had said it would entertain public comment and papers.

Suddenly, South Africa was interested in what three guys in Pittsburgh had to say.

Mr. Heistein conscripted himself for the job when he wrote a column for a South African newspaper on the hidden economic costs of drilling -- costs no one was exploring -- before the debate intensified and cars started sporting "Don't Frack the Karoo" bumper stickers, he said. The Treasure Karoo Action Group asked Mr. Heistein to study the economic consequences of drilling, and his first stop was Pennsylvania, where development puts the state years ahead of South Africa's nascent exploratory work.

"We start with a clean slate," Mr. Heistein said. "We can leapfrog some of the problems."

Since drilling in Pennsylvania began several years ago, residents and experts have exported experiences and concerns to shale communities from around the world. German television stations filmed documentaries on shale drilling in Washington County, and Lou D'Amico, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, put his first stamp in his passport when he flew to Brussels to speak to the environmental committee of the European Parliament in February.

Hydraulic fracturing technology has opened up reserves of natural gas and oil that were once thought inaccessible -- places as far-flung as Israel, Venezuela and Australia have all seen exploratory interest from companies. The overall opinion of some is already categorized: from outright horreur (France banned fracking in 2011) to supportive entuzjazm (Poland plans to start production by 2014).

Mr. Heistein came to Pittsburgh as a delegate to the One Young World conference in October, but stuck around when he saw the number of panels and symposiums on drilling that occur in any given week in Western Pennsylvania.

It didn't take long for him to realize how politically charged the issue has become. And when drilling is presented in Pittsburgh or Johannesburg as an avenue toward national security -- a domestic supply of energy that doesn't require outsourcing to volatile regions of the world -- he said, "how do you hold those tides back?"

The massive reserves of the Karoo Region have attracted significant interest from global energy firms. The 800-mile expanse of arid desert stretches between Johannesburg and Cape Town, a wide swath of farmland that the U.S. Energy Information Administration calculates could hold 485 trillion cubic feet of gas. If accurate, that would be about 7 percent of the world's total.

To hear Mr. Heistein describe it, the scene has played out much as it did in Pennsylvania: Groups of landowners have united in opposition to the rigs, while government officials tout the economic boon to a country facing a 25 percent unemployment rate, although no one knows who would get the jobs or how many there would be.

Mr. Heistein's column asked readers to consider the potential jobs lost when drilling moved into the region. For example: Thousands of jobs might be brought to the region by drillers, but how many jobs might be lost in the surrounding tourism industry? What's the net gain?

"Lost tourism is not listed by the companies in the cost of fracking," he said.

Land leasing in South Africa is different than in the United States. The government owns all of the mineral rights that are often leased by drillers, for one thing, so farmers can't expect the get-rich-quick windfall seen in parts of Pennsylvania.

Companies like Royal Dutch Shell have applied to drill dozens of wells in the Karoo. A recent report commissioned by the company found shale gas development could add between $11 billion and $30 billion to the country's gross domestic product.

Most Karoo residents are subsistence farmers who get by in a region known as "The Land Of Great Thirst," and the industry's heavy use of water has already drawn ire from local farming groups.

Some concerns are unique to South Africa -- such as the $2 billion radio telescope in the Karoo that needs a buffer zone from drilling over fears it could be knocked askew.

Others are less so -- Mr. Heistein said it remains to be seen how drilling trucks will navigate the rural roads.

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Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455. First Published November 18, 2012 5:00 AM


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