Shell plans could threaten SKA

2011-03-16 16:06

Cape Town - Oil giant Shell's plans to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo could affect South Africa's bid to build the world's biggest radio telescope, MPs heard on Wednesday.

Science and technology deputy director-general Val Munsami said Shell's plans were starting to raise questions among international partners.

They were asking how such exploration might impact on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), he told Parliament's science and technology portfolio committee. SA and Australia were shortlisted in 2006 as locations for the SKA project.

The SKA will cost about €2bn to build, and require between €150m and €200m a year, for 50 years, to maintain and operate.

The radio telescope - brainchild of a consortium of major international science funding agencies in 16 countries - comprises 3000 giant antenna dishes, each the height of a three-storey building.


Astronomers plan to use the SKA to peer back through time, across vast distances, to investigate the history of the universe and when the first stars were formed.

The SKA core site in SA is near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, where many of the dishes would be erected.

The plan also includes locating receiving stations, each comprising about 30 antenna dishes, in eight other African countries, some as far away as Ghana and Madagascar.

An announcement on who has won the bid will be made early next year.

Munsami said on Wednesday questions about Shell's plans were starting to "creep in" to South Africa's international lobbying strategy.

"Obviously, from a SKA perspective, we are concerned about it... In terms of the international lobbying strategy, it's starting to creep in as well; the international partners are starting to ask where this is going and how it will impact the SKA."

The department was looking at the implications of the oil company going ahead with its exploration for shale gas.

Management authority

"One key piece of legislation we have in place is the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which regulates the area in terms of radio interference," Munsami told the committee.

"Obviously we will be looking at whether, in terms of exploration, there is any radio interference. If there is, we will have to have that discussion in terms of the regulatory framework."

A management authority was being put in place within the department to deal with the matter, and "to ensure regulations are fulfilled in terms of protecting the SKA".

There was also "ongoing" discussion between his department and the department of energy on the matter, Munsami said.

Committee chair Nqaba Ngcobo noted the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act gave the sole right to regulate the zone in which the SKA would operate to the minister of science and technology.

"So I think that's not a problem... There is no way Shell can go ahead with that; the Act does not allow it. It can't," he assured members.

Anita Loots, associate director of South Africa's SKA team, said a key issue was that nothing untoward happened while radio frequency interference (RFI) tests were being conducted in the Karoo.


A team from the international SKA technical committee is currently in the country to carry out such RFI tests. Similar tests are being conducted in Australia.

The team's report will contribute toward determining which of the two countries win the bid.

"The key issue for us is that while the RFI measuring campaign is going on in South Africa and Australia, that there is nothing happening in the Karoo that requires people to carry a cellphone, or some sort or radio transmitting equipment, or whatever can actually impact on that measurement," Loots said.

"Because... although the fracking may happen quite a bit later, the immediate effect of it is if there are very strong radio signals in that area because of the exploration."

The "fracking" referred to is hydraulic fracturing, a technique for extracting shale gas from deep underground by pumping a pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals down drill holes.

  • Aquila ka Hecate - 2011-03-16 16:25

    Frack Off Shell. Just Frack Off.

      JenniB - 2011-03-16 16:40

      Couldn't have said it better myself - and Shell's application should never, never have gotten this far - I wonder who has made which promises for how much money????

      Irené - 2011-03-16 16:44

      my sentiment exactly- how can we force these guys out of our backyard? they have no right to be here in the first place- where are our civilian rights when they threaten one of the truly pure landscapes in SA? I hate oil companies. I hate conglomerates. I hate multinational corporations who use others homes and livelihoods just to make a few more quick bucks. Watch out Shell- there are a whole lot of pissed off SAffers out there- if only someone can suggest a way to combat these guys- I'm on board.

  • JenniB - 2011-03-16 16:41

    And I now refuse to fill up at Shell - it's just horrible - like the rhino slaughter - we shouldn't need dedicated websites to these horrors! Frack off Shell

  • Nokka - 2011-03-16 17:16

    To Hell with Shell

  • Duke - 2011-03-16 18:59

    Lets stop filling at shell fracking stations

  • RAYSEMBE - 2011-03-16 19:53

    Its a ploy Shell was bought by the powers that are compiting with SA in the bid,sorry Shell not at this time

  • Kotie - 2011-03-16 22:21

    Pump chemicals into the ground?? Water is already a scarce resource, and fracking will pollute the little that is under the ground... just look on the internet about all the complaints in Australia about fracking and the pollution going with it. If everybody stop filling up at Shell, they will have to listen one time or another!!!

  • daaivark - 2011-03-17 07:34

    Has Shell actually been granted permission for this travesty?

  • - 2011-03-17 08:35

    KEEP SHELL OUT of our Karroo !

  • Marian Shinn - 2011-03-17 09:12

    This report is based on questions I asked in the portfolio committee meeting yesterday. I hear that discussions are happening between Shell and the SKA project team at which Shell has indicated it will 'honour' the core advantage areas (1 of 3 in the draft EMP). At a recent meeting in Sutherland - home of SALT -it was explained to Shell that number 2 of 3 is also unavailable for prospecting.. The only area that's open for debate on whether prospecting may be permissible is 3 of 3. Let's hope Minister Patel (Econ Dev) hurries up with his report on the economic benefits of SKA so we can have an economic justification for not compromising the geology of the Karoo. The long-term benefits of the world-beating technical innovations being used to design and build the telescopes/software/communications/scientific instruments will far outweigh any fuel that may eke out of a fractured Karoo. - Marian Shinn, Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Science and Technology

  • White - 2011-03-24 14:26

    I pray for the time when these large unconsciouss coroprations would wake up and use their fortunes to invent new technologies for energy, that are not destroying our earth. humans have the ability to go beyond the means of limited mind and action. stop being stupid and start to truly lead in new sustainable caring ways. invent something new that is not killing the earth who sustains all life here. you could if you wanted to.

  • robertph72 - 2011-04-05 15:55

    Shell can go FRACK OFF!! to see the effects of FRACKING, watch Gasland:

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