Will the Karoo turn into a fracking hell?

2011-12-16 00:00

RESULTS of a recent survey reported that 23% of metro adults in South Africa are in favour of hydraulic rock fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, in the Karoo, with 31% against it and 46% unsure.

There is huge ignorance about fracking and while South Africa waits for the government to decide the fate of the Karoo and ultimately other frackable areas of the country, activists are lobbying opposition to what they claim will be a major environmental disaster.

Craig Elstob is a local man who is spreading the message that messing with the ecologically sensitive, water-scarce Karoo, spells danger for the natural balance which has existed there for eons.

Elstob, whose family has owned a farm for 170 years, 75 kilometres from Beaufort West, describes himself as a bit of a lone crusader in KZN.

“There are other people who are writing about it, but I go to schools and interested groups like Rotary or retirement villages to speak to people about what fracking means and the implications of it.”

While oil companies decline to reveal exactly what the chemical cocktail used in fracking is, theories have surfaced following documented cases of fracking in other countries.

During our interview, Elstob frequently refers to a documentary named Gasland, which documents the rape of the landscape and water resources in the United States.

Why should people in KwaZulu- Natal care about what’s happening in the Karoo?

Elstob says because the Karoo is all South Africans’ heritage. “The issue of exploratory fracking is very serious. They don’t know what’s under there. The Karoo is 250 million years old. It’s an ancient sea bed. The Karoo harbours shale gas, but in the area around the Drakensberg, there could be coal-seam gas, which is found at a much shallower depth, and therefore a greater chance of pollution. Shale gas is found four to six kilometres down.” What Elstob and others are trying to sensitise people about, is that if the go-ahead is given to frack the Karoo, it will only be a matter of time before the Drakensberg, a world heritage site, and other parts of the country are also plundered.

Simplistically, fracking involves a process where water, sand and chemicals­ are pumped at high pressure into the rock deep underground. Resulting explosions underground result in the sand holding the fractured rock open, allowing the gas to be released.

Elstob fears that precious underground aquifers could be contaminated. “You poison the water, you poison the people, animals and wildlife. Nothing can survive without water.”

The fracking process itself uses an enormous amount of water, a scarce commodity in the arid Karoo. “To frack just one well will take the equivalent­ of Graaff-Reinet’s water supply for three days. The amount of trucks that are needed to bring in the water and equipment is mind-boggling.” About 130 000 truck visits are needed per well pad of 32 wells for the sand, water and chemicals needed for the fracking process.

The custodian of the country’s mineral wealth is the Department of Minerals­ and Energy. “So farmers have no say and can’t stop a rig being put up on their farm. All they can do is negotiate where the well will be.”

But Elstob says Shell and any other corporates that think fracking in the Karoo will be a walk in the park, could be in for a surprise.

“In the Karoo, farmers will lock their gates and resist: 90% to 95% of their water comes from underground. With an annual rainfall of just 200 mm, poisoning that source would turn the semi-desert terrain into a full desert.”

Elstob says that during the fracking process recovered water is evaporated in large ponds and sprayed into the air to help with the evaporation.

“The chemicals in that water will land somewhere and research indicates that they may have carcinogenic effects. So it is water and air quality that is a critical issue for the environment.”

Elstob says that even in the Karoo, because the distances are great and people are isolated on farms, there is a need to educate locals about fracking. “After they had seen Gasland, they got on board. Graaff-Reinet has quite a good group going now, but there are still people who are oblivious despite the media coverage.”

The government in August placed a six-month moratorium on fracking to allow more time for consultation. “But it’s not long enough,” says Elstob. Of concern is that Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission recently gave the nod to shale-gas exploration while investigations into the effect on the environment continue. In an about turn, Sasol recently announced it was shelving exploration plans for shale gas in the Karoo. “We recently concluded an extensive technical study for shale gas in the Karoo Basin in South Africa,” chief financial officer Christine Ramon was quoted as saying.

“The technical co-operation permit, which allowed us to do this, expired on November 17, and we have decided not to pursue further exploration activities in the area at this stage. Sasol will, however, continue to monitor the shale-gas landscape for new developments.” Shell remains committed to its proposed shale-gas exploration project in the Karoo.

Elstob is incredulous that the effects of the chemicals, which are pumped into the ground during fracking, are being downplayed by the government. He says that in a few million years the chemicals will still be locked in the water system.

He says previous studies on DNA of indigenous people in the Karoo has found that they have the oldest DNA in the world. “The Karoo is our heritage.” And he is ready to fight for his heritage.

“Frack in the Karoo over my dead body. Even Canadians are willing to come to South Africa and lie down in front of trucks to halt the process, having first-hand knowledge of the situation there in their own country. I will do the same.”

Elstob also lobbies politicians. He is concerned that Thebe Investments, the ANC business wing, owns 25% of Shell’s refining business in South Africa­. “Think of the money that could flow in dividends, royalties and taxes back to government.”

(See www.thebe.co.za)

Elstob believes that KZN farmers need to stand shoulder to shoulder with Karoo farmers, because if fracking in the Karoo gets the go-ahead, this province could be next.

“Shale gas and coal-seam gas is the new diamond rush. Big corporations are looking for new areas to invest in. The water collected in the catchments areas from the Berg, flows into dams which supply our water. Our kids and their grandkids will live with these problems.”


• Numerous attempts to get comment from the Department of Minerals and Energy were unsuccessful.

ANTI-FRACKING activist Jonathan Deal, Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) chairperson, recently spoke at Cowan House to a group of concerned locals.

He said in a debate with Shell recently it said that it was not aware of one case of ground-water contamination. “But empirical evidence shows there is a threat and there are more than 1 000 cases being heard in U.S. courts.”

Deal is also concerned about promises of jobs which are used to get prospective workers to acquiesce in the fracking debate because he says jobs offered are not sustainable. The jobs will move around with the wells and once the wells have been established they are run by remote technology.

Deal is rallying support and trying to raise funds to take the fracking fight all the way to the Constitutional Court if necessary.

He remains positive that the fight against fracking can be won. “If we win this fight for the Karoo, we win for the country.” But he says TKAG is running out of money and needs support to take the government on in court.

See www.shell.com/home/content/zaf/aboutshell/shell_businesses/e_and_p/karoo/fracturing.html for a video detailing how fracking works.

Calling the shots

ACCORDING to Greenpeace, three oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil and Gas, and Bundu Oil and Gas are eyeing the exploration of natural gas trapped in the underground shale formations in the Karoo. Shell recently applied for exploration licences for an area of 90 000 square kilometres, roughly three times the size of Lesotho.

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