Andreas Späth

Much ado about fracking?

2011-04-20 08:46

Ivo Vegter, a regular contributor to the Daily Maverick, thinks that the production of so-called shale gas by a technique called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, isn’t nearly as dangerous as I and others make it out to be. A response to some of his comments is in order.

How much water?

Vegter points out that Shell’s proposed fracking operations in the Karoo will use only a small fraction of South Africa’s total water consumption - far less than Eskom’s share or the 75% used for irrigation - leading him to claim that “Shell will hardly make any impact at all”.

These statistics are, however, barely pertinent to the issue at hand. It would have been vastly more instructive if Vegter had attempted to estimate the available water resources in the 90 000km2 of Karoo comprising Shell’s concession and compared that to the amount of water required for fracking. It’s of little comfort to a Karoo farmer whose meagre water supplies are threatened by fracking that an irrigation farmer elsewhere in the country has more water at his disposal than he could ever hope for.

Attempting to trivialise the consumption of large quantities of water by pseudo-scientifically quoting irrelevant statistics is an irresponsible ploy, particularly in a region that’s already severely water-stressed and will become ever drier as climate change takes its toll.

Fracking deep?

Vegter’s assurances that groundwater contamination will not happen since drinkable water aquifers are shallow and fracking takes place “at depths of 2 500m or more” are no more scientific. While the vertical distance between groundwater and gas shale is indeed one parameter in the equation, what is significantly more important is the composition and structure of the rocks between the two.

The fact is that neither Shell nor anyone else has a sufficiently detailed enough understanding of the hydrogeological conditions in the region to be in a position to guarantee that potable groundwater reservoirs will not be contaminated. Groundwater migration is often very slow and there is simply no way that gas drillers can be certain that the long-lived, harmful chemicals they inject into the ground will not cause long-term groundwater contamination for generation to come.

No contamination?

Vegter quotes various US officials who are not aware of any cases in which groundwater contamination has been linked to fracking, but neglects to mention any of the numerous documented instances in which exactly that appears to have happened. With monotonous regularity people from various US states have reported that, after years of good health and clean water, the quality of both deteriorated catastrophically as soon as shale gas production came to their neighbourhood. Can they prove that fracking is to blame? No. Can the gas companies prove that it’s not? No. For years, US gas miners, scandalously exempt from the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, refused to identify their fracking chemicals, making any meaningful monitoring of potential contamination virtually impossible.


Vegter is under the misconception that shale gas is “cleaner than the dirty coal”. While this is indeed the case for conventionally produced natural gas, research shows that, considering its entire lifecycle, shale gas produced by fracking has a carbon footprint that is comparable to or substantially larger than that of coal.

Job creation?

Quite contrary to Vegter’s imagined “thousands of potential employees”, Shell has publicly acknowledged that the job creation potential of its South African fracking operations is expected to be rather limited and short-lived. One of Shell’s local consultants is on record as stating that “the Karoo economy will not survive gas mining”.


In what is presumably an attempt at humour, considering that his own column is entitled “Karoo fracking scandal exposed!”, Vegter bemoans the use of the word “fracking” as “beneath any self-respecting journalist”. The word was coined by the industry itself. It might not be pretty, but it’s fair game.


Throughout his column Vegter creates the impression that the negative public image of fracking is the outcome of lies peddled by environmentalists. In reality, the growing opposition is driven predominantly by ordinary Karoo inhabitants and farmers who simply don’t want fracking on their land. To refer to these people as “Big Green lobbyists” is laughable. What is big are the enormous resources multinational gas companies can bring to bear in their attempts to ride roughshod over ordinary people’s justified concerns about their health, environment and future.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Send your comments to Andreas

News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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