Shale gas: what the frack is the truth?

2011-03-27 09:23

Johannesburg - If shale gas is found in the Karoo and other areas in South Africa, it can change the energy landscape as radically as in the United States, where shale-gas production is expected to produce enough natural gas for the next century.

Because landowners in South Africa do not own the mineral rights beneath their land, as in many cases in the US, farmers in the Karoo will not enjoy much financial benefit from extraction, except possibly better roads and fencing.

There is also a risk that their ground water will be polluted by natural gas and waste water from the drilling process.

Worldwatch, an environmental thinktank in Washington, says unconventional natural gas resources such as shale can make a big contribution to a sustainable-energy future, especially when used in combination with renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power.

Saya Kitasei, a sustainable-energy associate at Worldwatch, believes that in countries such as South Africa which are heavily dependant on coal, natural gas can help reduce carbon-monoxide emissions.

But Worldwatch insists that the environmental risks of shale-gas extraction must be managed more strictly after a number of cases in the US where gas companies were fined for polluting groundwater.

With adequate precautionary measures, Worldwatch believes that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a safe technology to mine shale gas. The emphasis must be on sinking boreholes and maintaining the integrity of the drilling infrastructure.

According to Kitasei, the movie Gasland (a documentary on the environmental effect of gas mining in the US) and the media have played a role in highlighting the environmental concerns.

She says if the goal is to make shale-gas mining safer, not enough has been done by environmental groups or the gas industry to work together productively towards a safer best practice.

Last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico revealed that the oil and gas industry did not have environmental risks under control as they would have liked to believe.

On the other hand, Kitasei reckons the way that a movie such as Gasland addresses the issue makes the gas industry mistrust environmental groups, leading it to feel that these groups are ill-informed on the technical and geological aspects of shale-gas mining.

This mutual mistrust is counterproductive. If the industry and environmental groups cannot sit around a table, the status quo will remain, says Kitasei.

In South Africa, international oil giant Shell has received most of the media attention so far. Sasol and other less well-known companies such as Falcon Oil and Bundu Gas also have shale-gas plans, but thus far have managed to stay mostly out of the public eye. This in spite of allegations that Falcon does not go to the same lengths as Shell with its public participation process.

From informal discussions with employees of the large, established energy companies such as Shell or -Exxon it seems they think that some of the smaller, lesser-known gas companies in the US tend to take shortcuts.

Chris Tucker, director of Energy in Depth, a group that represents independent gas companies in the US, disagrees and says many independent companies are listed on the New York Stock-Exchange. He maintains that these companies are experienced gas operators with reputations to protect.

Tucker says Gasland’s criticism of the industry is unfair and uninformed. The spectacular scenes where people in Colorado ignite their tap water have nothing to do with shale gas and fracking, he says.

According to him, investigations have shown that this gas is conventional, natural gas that is found in shallower earth layers and had been there before any fracking and horizontal drilling had been done in shale rock.

Kitasei says authorities in South Africa should regulate the shale-gas industry on three levels, by managing water use, regulating waste water, and managing air quality related to processing and transporting natural gas.

During a visit to Shell’s shale-gas activities in Louisiana by Sake24, Shell officials emphasised that they test the water of landowners before sinking any boreholes. Ground water is also tested regularly for the duration of the mining activities, they say.

Graham Tiley, Shell’s general manager for new ventures and international exploration, says that although shale-gas development is new, Shell has more than 100 years of experience in oil and gas development of conventional reserves. – Sake24