Fracking up the Karoo

Farmers in the Karoo are increasingly worried about a massive search for shale gas on their land and if developments in the USA, a global leader in the exploitation of this form of natural gas, are anything to go by we are in for an environmental mess that will affect more than just a few back-of-beyond sheep farmers.

Shale gas is trapped in countless tiny bubbles in certain layers of the sedimentary rock shale. It was previously considered to be too expensive to exploit commercially, but advances in horizontal drilling techniques and a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” have led to a worldwide rush to identify shale gas reserves. Fracking involves injecting pressurised water mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals into boreholes to crack open the impermeable shale and allow the gas to escape to the surface.

I have raised concerns about shale gas exploration and fracking in South Africa previously. Now things are hotting up. Government has granted permits to five major companies and consortia to evaluate the country’s shale gas reserves, which are unproven but potentially substantial. Between them, Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil & Gas, Anglo American, Bundu Gas and Oil and a joint venture between Sasol, Statoil of Norway and Chesapeake Energy of the USA are assessing a huge area extending from Worchester to Port Elizabeth and from the Free State to KwaZulu-Natal. While their permits do not allow drilling, if they are successful, widespread fracking is sure to follow.

Supporters of the industry say it will create jobs and alleviate energy shortages, but the Karoo farmers are particularly worried about the large quantities of water - as much as 20 million litres for a single well - required for the fracking process. They should also be apprehensive about possible contamination of their groundwater by methane gas and the chemicals used during fracking, among them several known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.

Environmental organisations have collected extensive evidence for fracking-related groundwater contamination in several US states. A 2008 study conducted in Colorado, for instance, found that methane contamination of drinking water wells rose in tandem with increased gas shale drilling.

In June, a shale gas well blowout in Pennsylvania spewed toxic fracking water and gas for nearly 16 hours. Regulators in the state have repeatedly penalized shale gas companies for contaminating private drinking water wells and recently quarantined 28 cows that came into contact with fracking wastewater.

Scientists from the US Environmental Protection Agency have identified methane, 2-butoxyethanol phosphate, benzene and other toxic chemicals known to be used in fracking in private boreholes located near shale gas wells and the US Congress has recently instructed the agency to investigate the potential impact of fracking on drinking water quality, human health and the environment. The New York State Senate has already instituted a moratorium on shale gas development to protect New York City’s drinking water supply in the Catskill Mountains and the Delaware River adjacent to a major shale gas area.

Disposal of the toxic wastewater which returns to the surface presents another headache. A damning Vanity Fair article reports that “in Avella, Pennsylvania, a wastewater impoundment caught fire and exploded on George Zimmerman’s 480-acre property, producing a 200-foot-high conflagration that burned for six hours”.

Shale gas supporters claim that it could provide a low-carbon bridge to a renewable energy future, but while gas-fired power stations emit only about half the greenhouse gasses produced by coal-fired equivalents, shale gas may be no more climate friendly than other fossil fuels. Taking into account leakages of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during drilling, storage and transportation, a preliminary study by Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University in the USA suggests that shale gas is likely to be “far less attractive than oil and not significantly better than coal in terms of the consequences for global warming.”

Instead of being a clean power panacea, shale gas is just another fossil fuel dead end. Rather than wasting precious time, money and opportunities by handing out exploration permits that threaten our scarce water resources and increase our already oversized carbon footprint, government should use our taxes to move us towards truly eco-friendly, renewable energy solutions.

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

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