Fracking the ocean

Andreas Wilson-Späth

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know what I think about fracking: it’s a dangerous, polluting, wasteful, climate changing and altogether unnecessary technology, and the day we discard the very idea of it can’t come soon enough.

Now PetroSA wants to use fracking in one of its natural gas fields about 110 kilometres offshore from Mossel Bay. But the days when the fossils in the fossil fuel industry were able to do as they pleased without any objections from the public are over.

The good folks at Fractual, an organisation dedicated to providing the public with the information required to come to a rational, evidence-based opinion about fracking, climate change and renewable energy alternatives, have submitted a formal reply to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the proposed project compiled by PetroSA.

Offshore fracking shares many of the risks inherent in fracking on land and adds others that are unique to the marine environment. Based on a review of the available evidence, from a wide range of sources, including industry reports and peer-reviewed scientific studies (much of which is freely available in a compendium compiled and updated by a US organisation called Concerned Health Professionals of New York), Fractual opposes PetroSA’s offshore plans and points out that there are several major concerns which the EIA either doesn’t address sufficiently or doesn’t deal with at all.

In brief, these concerns, organised into seven themes, are:

Climate change

By all indications the planet is already well on track for very substantial – and predominantly detrimental – changes as a result of global warming. The vast majority of the fossil fuel (coal, oil and natural gas) reserves that we know of are unburnable – i.e. need to stay in the ground – if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

We need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not dig up more fossil fuels to burn. Research increasingly indicates that instead of being a ‘bridging fuel’ to a low carbon economy, a growing reliance on natural gas from fracking will not significantly lower global carbon emissions while delaying the widespread implementation of sustainable alternatives.

Ocean health

Burning fossil fuels, including fracked natural gas, doesn’t just raise the concentration of climate changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but also leads to increasing quantities of this compound being dissolved in seawater, resulting in a phenomenon called ocean acidification, a major threat to a variety of marine organisms, many of which form the base of the oceanic food chain.


In addition to contributing to ocean acidification, offshore fracking also pollutes seawater more directly. The Fractual report notes that “the EIA seeks approval for practices like dumping of fracking waste without any form of treatment, regulation or oversight”.

Disposing of fracking waste, including a mixture of industrial chemicals, in the sea represents a direct threat to the health of marine ecosystems, important fisheries and coastal tourism.

Occupational health

The EIA neglects to consider the health hazards – from fires and explosions to exposure to dangerous fracking chemicals – to which workers in the proposed offshore fracking operations would be exposed.


PetroSA is clearly trying to pull a fast one here, looking for approval of a technology that is new to South Africa and for which regulations are yet to be finalised or signed into law in either the onshore or offshore setting.


The industry would love to do its thing in the absence of independent oversight. Its preferred environment would be one in which frackers operate in a supposedly self-regulating and self-moderating fashion.

Further study and greater transparency

We don’t know nearly enough about the various impacts of fracking. Fractual points out that “the first few months of 2014 saw more studies published on the health effects of fracking than all studies published in 2011 and 2012 combined”. Wouldn’t it be sensible to refuse permission to use the technology until we clearly understand all of its consequences?

Taking all of these factors into account, the bottom line is quite simple and eloquently summarised by the Fractual team, who point out that their “examination of the peer-¬reviewed medical and public health literature uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practised in a manner that does not threaten human health” and that “there is no proven benefit to the people of South Africa from this project that cannot be better achieved by alternative technologies”.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Send your comments to Andreas


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