The Jekyll and Hyde of Karoo Fracking

20 January 2014

The prospect of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as "˜fracking", in the Karoo has ignited a number of online petitions and action groups to halt it from initiation due to the valid concerns that have arisen regarding the short and long term effects that this activity could have on the environment, agricultural activity as well as the people living in the Karoo. Hydraulic fracturing could be the solution to our nation's unstable power supply, since Methane gas is extracted from the process of fracking. Geologists have reported that there is a significant amount of methane gas stored in pockets in the deep layers of shale (a fine-grained sedimentary rock) contained in the Karoo Basin. Methane gas is emerging as a useful energy source which could be the alternative to coal.

The process of fracking begins when wells are drilled as deep as 3-4 km below the earth's surface before they are drilled horizontally once they reach the shale layer. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is then pumped at high pressures into these wells, which results in the fracturing of the surrounding rock. Between 6 and 25 million litres of water and up to 20 tons of chemicals and sand are used for this process. The sand particles in this mixture are useful in keeping these newly formed fissures open, which allows the natural gas to escape and flow out of the well. The gas is temporarily kept in nearby storage tanks before it gets transported by pipes to the market.

A number of oil and gas companies have shown an interest in shale gas (methane) exploration in the Karoo. They include Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil and Gas from Canada and its American partner, Chevron and Challenger Energy from Australia. In September 2012, the Government lifted a ban on shale gas exploration, increasing the likelihood that Shell could be granted an exploration licence. The exploration phase, should it commence, is estimated to last for 3-4 years.

Shell commissioned a study by a Cape Town based consultancy, Econometrix. The findings made by this study proposes that extracting 50 trillion cubic feet or 12.8% of the potential reserves would add $20 billion or 5% GDP to the economy every year for 25 years and create 700 000 jobs.

The list of potential risks of fracking in the Karoo is seemingly endless. The first point of contention comes from the fact that the Karoo is classified as a semi-desert and often goes through droughts. Fracking is a process that requires an enormous amount of water and there are concerns that the activity could exacerbate water shortage in the Karoo. However, Shell is obstinate that it will drill down to brackish aquifers as deep as 4 km, draw up the water, clean it and then use it to frack. Brackish aquifers are permeable rock layers that bear water which has salinity higher than that of freshwater, but not as high as sea water. Another concern regarding the Karoo's water supply is the likelihood of groundwater contamination should the well have in it any leakages or breakages.

It is unclear what will be done with the massive quantity of the used, contaminated water which will be even further contaminated with the harmful substances that exist at the depth at which fracking will take place. There are countless reports of the appalling environmental impact that fracking has had in the United States of America.It has been stated that fracking and gas extraction will result in significant job creation, but this is prospect is dampened by fact that mostly highly skilled labour will be required for this process, and this skilled labour may have to be sourced abroad. Furthermore, this list of prospective jobs has not been very detailed in terms of the needed skills and qualifications.

With the recent and widely covered debacle of acid mine drainage and the havoc that its wreaking on Johannesburg and surrounding areas, as the direct result of an activity that brought with it the rewards of remarkable economic growth of the country, one must seriously consider if this new, tentative promise of growth is entirely worth the risk of an upsetting impact on the environment.

One would like to believe that all stakeholders involved in any future hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo do not waste the valuable and harsh lessons available from our current acid mine drainage crisis and go to great lengths to ensure that the people of the Karoo, along with their environment, livelihoods and activities are not adversely affected by hydraulic fracturing activities. It should be noted that there are several other alternatives to sustainable energy, such as solar, wind and wave energy. Energy sources which are renewable, less harmful, and which employ less invasive methods of recovery. It would certainly be worthwhile to thoroughly explore these alternatives as well.

Disebo Letanta

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