Andreas Späth

A clean energy revolution?

2010-02-10 08:11

The global energy industry is in the early stages of a major exploration boom for a new, "clean-burning", "environmentally-friendly" energy source that is about to reach our shores. It's "the biggest energy innovation of the decade", but you've probably never heard of it. It's called shale gas and behind all of the hype, there are worrying environmental and health threats that should be of concern to South Africans even at this very early stage of the game.

Tiny bubbles

Shale gas consists of billions of tiny bubbles of natural gas trapped in impervious layers of a type of sedimentary rock called shale. Unlike easily accessible sources of conventional gas, shale gas can't be extracted by simply piercing the gas-bearing layer with a borehole and until quite recently its exploitation was severely hampered by technical difficulties and high costs.

It took rising gas prices and the development of revolutionary technology, much of which pioneered in Texas during the last decade, to turn shale gas into a booming industry. Today, directional drilling allows prospectors to drill horizontally into a gas shale at great depth, but the most important new - and controversial - process that makes shale gas extraction possible is so-called "hydraulic fracturing", or, to use the sexy industry lingo, "fracking". Shales are shattered by injecting large quantities of water, sand and chemicals into the borehole at very high pressures. Grains of sand keep newly formed cracks in the shale open, allowing the liberated gas to be extracted via the well.

New reserves

In the USA, the combined innovations of horizontal drilling and fracking have been used for years and recently the search for gas shales has spread to many other places from Canada and China to France and soon the Karoo. This large basin, which covers much of central South Africa, has great, but as yet unproven shale gas potential and local and international companies have just started to step up efforts to discover reserves.

Last year, Royal Dutch Shell and Falcon Oil & Gas were awarded "technical co-operation permits" to assess parts of the Karoo. In November a consortium consisting of Sasol Petroleum International, Norway's Statoil ASA and the US-based Chesapeak Energy Corporation applied for shale gas exploration rights.

Major environmental concerns

In the USA, there is mounting evidence that the exploitation of shale gas may have severe ecological and human health consequences:

- Fracking is an immensely water-intensive process, requiring as much as 17 million litres of water per well. Not a sensible prospect for some of the driest parts of an already water-stressed country!

- Over 200 chemicals are used in the fracking process, including benzene, formaldehyde, various acids and pesticides. Numerous cases of groundwater contamination have been reported in areas where shale gas drilling was conducted.

- In several instances, leakages of methane from shale gas wells has rendered drinking water in domestic boreholes flammable and even explosive.

- Large quantities of chemically tainted wastewater are routinely left behind in wells and smaller yet substantial quantities that come back to the surface need to be stored and treated carefully before being returned to the environment.

- In New York City, government and municipal officials and agencies together with environmental organisations are demanding a ban on shale gas drilling in the city's water catchment area located above the massive Marcellus Shale because of "concerns regarding potential impacts to human health and the environment".

An option for South Africa?

While exploiting shale gas is thus an environmentally dubious proposition at best, on a more fundamentally level it represents a pitifully 20th Century way of thinking about energy matters that will keep us hooked on non-renewable fossil fuels which pollute our oceans and atmosphere and drive us inextricably towards run-away global climate change and its dire consequences.

Real innovation lies in developing the truly sustainable and renewable energy sources with which South Africa is disproportionately blessed. Let's not waste any more time on carbon-intensive dead-ends like shale gas. Let’s speak out against them before the über-eager fossil industry present them to us as a green-washed fait accompli.

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