Fracking in the Karoo – who do we believe?

15th April 2011 By: Saliem Fakir

While Shell is attracting the most negative publicity owing to its application to the Petroleum Agency of South Africa for exploration rights in the Karoo, other companies have also submitted applications, including Anglo Coal and Sasol. The latter is also in partnership with an American and Norwegian firm.

The total area being proposed by Shell for exploration is about 90 000 km2. The Karoo’s ecosystem is very sensitive. Farmers in the region have long established a very fine balance between their production needs and the ability of the ecosystem to provide the services needed.

Water is clearly the main concern. Water can be abstracted from natural underground aquifers. Many of these aquifers have, to date, been well maintained and provide clean, good-quality potable water. However, the aquifers are also complex systems, and their functioning is not thoroughly understood and, if the ecosystems are disturbed, it is not known how damaging the impacts will be and whether the damage will be permanent or remediable.

The sourcing of water for shale gas extraction is, obviously, a key issue. The concern here is not only about the resultant pollution, but also about the effects of the diversion of water for shale gas extraction. The exact quantities that would be required are not known at this stage, but it is understood millions of litres of water would be needed.

Water scarcity could be exacerbated because of pollution from the use of chemicals during the coblasting of water and chemicals to fracture the shale rock. There is a tendency to keep the exact contents of these chemicals a secret. At one point, Shell suggested the incredulous idea of bringing in seawater. But this was from the company’s public relations person, who did not really know what he was talking about. Seawater seeping into aquifers can permanently change the water quality and its fitness for human and animal consumption. Remediation possibilities are slim.

There is a general lack of public knowledge and understanding of shale fracking techniques. How do they work? What is the machinery used? How much water is required? What are the safety issues concerning the leaking of methane gas, and what are the distances gas has to be piped? Many questions remain unanswered. Also, the Karoo is far from the key economic centres, where the gas is mostly likely to be used. The envisaged ventures’ economic rationale does not seem too sound.

There are legitimate concerns about the impact of shale gas mining and extraction on areas that have been relatively free from mass outside intrusion. Shale gas extraction could have disruptive effects on community and social relations. The best example of this is provided by the tar sands rush in Canada. Does Shell work with other companies on how it plans to manage the ‘rush’ and meet housing and other needs? The main concern is that Shell is taking something of a ‘shock and awe’ approach.

New mining activities can also have other disruptive effects. It is not known how shale gas exploration and extraction will affect the current agriculture and tourism economy of the Karoo. With trucks and people moving in and out of the area, the aesthetic serenity factors need to be understood. Has Shell considered this? More importantly, the Karoo is potentially the new home of the global Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. The whole shale gas debate is causing international jitters and could scupper South Africa’s bid to host the SKA. Further, concentrating solar power plants have been mooted for that region. They will also need water and large pieces of land.

The development of a stranded gas resource seems to be more energy consuming for the expected energy return. Shale gas is riding on the coat tails of natural gas, seen to be less carbon intensive than coal and oil. This narrative does not quite gel with some expert opinions. Of course, a lot depends on the quantity of the gas, its quality, the energy needed to extract and purify the gas and the distance the gas has to be transported, besides other factors.

The more thinly distributed in the earth’s substrata the gas is, the more energy intense the extraction and economic costs will be. This fact alone suggests that large surface areas are required and numerous wells must be drilled for the extraction of gas to be viable (about 3,1 wells per square kilometre). Methane carbon content, if leaked (and does happen during production, transport and use), is the most damaging of greenhouse gases.

If we considered the full life-cycle analysis of natural gas extraction, compared with coal and oil, it is not that favourable. For stranded gas reserves like shale – in remote areas – the picture is even bleaker. Here, the parallels with tar sands cannot be more striking. How does Shell think that gas exploration will help South Africa reduce the carbon intensity of its energy system and meet its international obligations? How does its planned venture fit in with the broader picture of integrated energy planning for South Africa?