SKA may scupper fracking plans

2012-05-29 22:40

Johannesburg - South Africa's winning the rights to host the bulk of the world's biggest radio telescope looks set to clash with plans to use the high-pressure pumping method fracking, which can cause earth tremors, to extract gas from its vast shale deposits.

Last week, South Africa won the rights to locate about 70% of the "Square Kilometre Array" (SKA), a $2bn project capable of detecting signs of extraterrestrial life in the far reaches of the universe.

The project will bring the construction of more than a thousand highly sensitive receptors spread across hundreds of kilometres of arid terrain in the Northern Cape province.

The area is subject to an astronomy law that prohibits activity interfering with star gazing, which could include hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" - where drillers blast large amounts of sand and water laced with chemicals deep underground to free natural gas and oil from shale deposits.

"There is no decision by government on that [fracking]. We must understand the science before any licence is given, but I will use the astronomy advantage act if necessary," Science Minister Naledi Pandor told a news conference last week.

The Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007, meant to bolster South Africa's bid for the array, gives the Science Ministry a mandate to cut down trees, re-route air flights, silence radio signals and prohibit anything that harms astronomy in the region.

The area is home to gas reserves now being investigated by energy company Royal Dutch Shell and petrochemical group Sasol.

According to an initial study commissioned by the US energy information administration, South Africa has 485 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas resources, most of which are located in the Karoo Basin.

The amount is the fifth largest of 32 countries included in the study and is pitched as a long-term solution for the energy problems of Africa's largest economy.


"The SKA will be situated in our licence application area," Janine Nel, a spokesperson for Shell South Africa Upstream, said.

"We will comply with legislation in this regard and ensure that any future exploration activities we may undertake respect these regulations."

Environmentalists and other critics say fracking, which has made available major new unconventional sources of gas and transformed the US energy sector, can cause earth tremors and contaminate water. The process is banned in several countries.

Independent energy industry analyst Chris Yelland said South Africa is committed to the telescope project and it is up to scientists and engineers to see if fracking can co-exist with it.

"No one can give a definitive answer at this point on whether it is possible," Yelland told Reuters.

About a year ago, South Africa imposed a fracking moratorium on oil and gas exploration licences in the semi-arid region to gain time to examine the concerns of environmentalists who say the process would ruin the area and to study the potential gains.

Energy Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

The telescope project will take years to build and the government appears in no rush to see how it will apply its astronomy law on mining and fracking.

When completed in 2024, the telescope will be made up of 3 000 dishes, each 15m wide, together with many more antennae, that together will give a receiver surface area of a square kilometre.

The bulk of the project will be in South Africa and partner African countries. Australia and New Zealand also won the rights to host a smaller portion of the project.

Scanning the sky 10 000 times faster and with 50 times the sensitivity of any other telescope, it will be able to see 10 times further into the universe and detect signals that are 10 times older.

  • Dominic - 2012-05-29 23:29

    Clearly any interference of fracking on any World Heritage issues are not as news worthy as the SKA... The loss of any of South Africa's World Heritage Sites as a result of the impact of mining, or potential mining/fracking are neither here nor there according to international agreements that we are signatories to? Clearly, the SKA is a far bigger income generator, and job creation magnet than any of the world heritage sites. Some of the ecosystem goods and services of these have been valued, and far surpass the income potentially generated by the gas reserves that may, or may not, be found in these areas. Given the water scarce resources this country may be facing imminently, should we even be contemplating destroying these resources, so that others can benefit, while South Africans die of water constraints?

      Squeegee - 2012-05-30 06:57

      Dominic, you are right, but in the interest of the environment, we need to take what we can get. The SKA adds to the reasons not to frack. It takes away the job creation argument and hopefully greed won't lead our esteemed leaders to try do both. The Karoo wins.

      Horst - 2012-05-30 09:12

      Dominic, you are wrong, could you please explain how this SKA is going to generate a far bigger income compared to Methane extraction. And what jobs can we expect from SKA? We would probably supply a few astronomers, some technicians and cleaning staff. And considering the construction phase you will find that most of the equipment will be imported, thus no boost to our industry, and also some of the technical skills putting it all together will come from overseas. Compare this to fracking for which our industry can supply most of the drilling- and extraction equipment, and also supply most of the skills needed to run these things and extract methane for the benefit of the country as a whole.

      Stirrer - 2012-05-30 09:54

      Horst, Shell is a Dutch company. This means they will suck South Africa dry, twice. First taking all our gas, which may or may not be used in SA, secondly all their profits are repatriated to the Netherlands. Equipment and skills will probably be imported, because fracking has never been done here before, therefore more money flowing out. So, what economic advantage will South Africa get?

      Horst - 2012-05-30 11:52

      Well Stirrer, I think you need a few lessons in economy and technology. I can't do this here in a few sentences. But just consider this, what is wrong with getting investments from Shell? In return they will generate jobs, they will also pay the government for the license and a certain fee for the gas extracted. So its wrong to say they will suck us dry. As far as the gas leaving our country, this will be highly unlikely, its not very transportable because of its low density and hazards. The best is to use it locally to generate electricity and/or to make diesel or wax.

      Nick - 2012-05-30 11:54

      Dominic, Squeegee, and Stirrer - exactly! Remember - these vermin Big Oil companies have raped and ransacked the Earth - on land and at sea - for their oil and gas assets - with scant regard for the environment and local communities living there! Cutting corners on safety and environmental preservation along the way.. See the scum - BP - and their cutting maintenance corners (to save money) that resulted in the Deep Water Horizon off-shore rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico - resulting in the death of 11 people, and unknown marine and sea life damage - not to mention to coastal communities and economies.. See Shell - and their record in the Niger Delta. Vast tracts of pristine land and water polluted, communities deprived of their ancestral way of life and income - destroyed by Shell's greed! Where has Shell been for the clean-up?? NOWHERE!! See Chevron in Ecuador - where huge oil spills and gas emissions into the air - have destroyed the health and lives of local communities... And - when compensation is sought, and ordered by international courts - where are they - where are these scum???? I'll tell you where - HIDING - hiding behind lawsuit after lawsuit - which the vermin can drag on for years - ALL the while the local communities and the lands suffer! Soooooooooo - what do you think Shell will do when there's an accident or spill in the Karoo..???? The pigs will run - and hide in court!!! These scum must NEVER be allowed to go fracking in our beautiful Karoo!

      Dominic - 2012-05-30 22:29

      Horst. Your comment about the jobs and the economy are so one sided, it stinks. What is the point of providing 500 people with jobs and fantastic govt incentives (that local communities will never benefit from) while the people of this country have to then import water at exorbitant costs. I am not sure that a proper cost benefit analysis has been undertaken of the free water purification benefits we are supplied with daily vs a couple of jobs for mostly skilled labour. There is a growing need for this country to investigate the green economy as a real GDP boost, and to forget about 'fracking' these opportunities up for a couple of minerals which are very short-sighted in comparison to longer term sustainabilty issues. \r\n\r\nHaving looked at some stats, KZN has another 20 to 30 years of current landscape transformation, after which the ecosystems which sustain life and agriculture and water purification are destined to falter. Gauteng probably has less than that, and the Western Cape may be comparable. You may think it is not your issue because you may not be around then, but what about your kids, and Govt's commitment to the constitution which engenders providing a suitable environment for future generations.\r\n\r\nThe real question is: how much do we as SAfricans really stand to gain from fracking, and are we happy with the potential losses associated with these activities. Is there any acceptable loss of water resources? If so, what is the limit...?\r\n\r\nHorst. Your argument does not address what acceptable levels of change are, and whether the economic 'gains' are a worthwhile offset for the greater good of the nation as a whole.

      Dominic - 2012-06-07 21:24

      seems as though Horst may have seen the light... Perhaps his arguments were too one sided and had no alternative side to the coin. Unfortunately this country is between a rock (gas laden or not) and a hard place. Mess with the water supply, as has been shown in the east and west rand, and it becomes suddenly very expensive. Yes we benefited, for a short period, but we are now payong for our forefathers gains, and putting the country on the map for gold. The benefits we reaped are paying to treat the water. We are back at that square 1 with water quality issues in the Karoo and Berg with Fracking. Can we not learn from our mistakes....!?

  • Jacques - 2012-05-29 23:32

    Much better- SKA will contribute to the future generations of South Africans, while this damned fracking will only rape the Karoo. Down with fracking, viva SKA!

      Adil Smit - 2012-05-29 23:42

      And Viva Naledi Pandor for working and succeeding.

      Jacques - 2012-05-29 23:57

      True! Now let us hope for once we have good co-operation within goverment to make sure this works out. I can just imagine them signing all kinds of contracts with Shell only to get tied up in SKA beurocracy and legal matters, and THEN it's a multinational you've messed with, not some mickey-mouse politician's in-law's tender to cover up!

      Koos - 2012-05-30 00:29

      In today's terms money can buy anything related to rights and laws.

  • Marina - 2012-05-30 00:23

    Apart from possible earth tremors caused by fracking, there is also the dust and air pollution caused by the thousands of diesel trucks, the compressor stations, fugitive emmissions, not to mention the fine dust from the silica used to frack the well - and of course the light pollution from flaring. And the drilling goes on all night, with all the noise and light pollution that goes with it. All of which will definitely interfere with any star gazing! Just have a look at photos on the web of what fracking actually looks like, that will give you an idea. Here is one example:

      Walter - 2012-05-30 05:53

      Yes, and if the fracking idea is stopped completely, it's the best news I've heard in this country for a long time.

      Nick - 2012-05-30 11:57

      Thank-You Marina - absolutely! :) Hooray for SKA - and it's investment in our clean, green, scientific, intellectual future! :) Bringing genuine investment into the Karoo - for the land and her peoples - and not poison and pollution.

  • Phillip - 2012-05-30 06:25

    Lets hope that the ANC dont frack this up... The possibilities of the SKA, and further developments in the exploration of the universe, is endless.

      Koos - 2012-05-30 06:49

      Just imagine looking back 19 years to see what a wonderfull country SA were.

      Mark - 2012-05-30 07:32

      @Koos - only from your narrow minded, one sided perspective. Instead of moaning and groaning try doing something positive for your country.

      Phillip - 2012-05-30 12:12

      @Koos... i truely hope they will look back much further than the +-5000 years, that most people think the earth is old... so in the larger scale of things, looking back to 1949, is really not that important...

  • braamc - 2012-05-30 06:47

    Great news!

  • cheslin.white.7 - 2012-05-30 06:48

    Will SKA provide more jobs and income for the poor of the northern cape than fracking would? I visited the area last week and the amount of poverty is frightening. A project that could provide economic relief to thousands should not be disregarded totally.

      dave.prinsloo - 2012-05-30 07:14

      more sustainable jobs than fracking, much longer life span, no environmental concerns, establishing South Africa as a premier Astrophysics destination and lifting our international profile etc. There is just no comparison. Fantastic news, especially for future generations.

  • dave.prinsloo - 2012-05-30 07:14

    more sustainable jobs than fracking, much longer life span, no environmental concerns, establishing South Africa as a premier Astrophysics destination and lifting our international profile etc. There is just no comparison. Fantastic news, especially for future generations.

  • Lauden Kirk - 2012-05-30 08:14

  • Linde.Olaf - 2012-05-30 08:23

    Also, why not utilize the vast open space for Solar Arrays?

  • Phae - 2012-05-30 08:25

    I love it!!! What a win for the environment, if the government can be trusted not to renege on their agreement with SKA.

  • West - 2012-05-30 08:29

    These sick F***s will go ahead with fracking anyhow, theres just too many huge opportunities for corruption to pass by.

  • gregmcdavid - 2012-05-30 09:05

    Best. News. Ever!

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