umm Abdillah, Radio Islam Programming | 2015.03.20 | 28 Jumadal Ula 1436 AH
It’s been a week of rehashing the fracking debate in South Africa. News that Shell has temporarily withdrawn from shale-gas exploration projects in the Karoo due to “lower energy prices and a six year delay in obtaining an exploration licence” created considerable conversation. To date, exploration applications have been received from Shell International, Falcon Oil and Gas in partnership with Chevron, and Bundu Gas. Chances are however that most people, even after listening to the debate, shrug non-committedly and wait for the next person to answer the question about whether fracking is the answer to the SA energy shortage.
Fracking is a shortened version of the term "hydraulic fracturing". It is the process whereby natural gas is extracted from deep within shale rock formations. It has been done in large parts of the United States and across Europe, but it has not come without consequences.
During the fracking process, a well is created, which involves drilling a hole into the ground that typically stretches between 3 and 5km vertically, after which the drill bit turns sideways and drills horizontally along the shale rock layer. Then, millions of litres of water, sand, and an undisclosed number of chemicals are injected under very high pressure into the well. This causes the shale fissures to crack open, releasing the natural gas, which is then collected in another process. The gas dissolves into the water, and this chemical-laden, gas-laden water is then brought to the surface, and called 'prepared water'.
An estimate by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gives South Africa the world's eighth biggest shale reserves. That comes with obvious potential to transform our economy.
Shell's retreat is thus seen as a blow to the South African government, which has been criticised by oil firms for delaying issuing exploration licenses, most notably in the Karoo region, which is believed to hold up to 390 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable reserves.
Shell had applied for an exploration license covering more than 95,000 square kilometres, almost a quarter of the Karoo.
A study commissioned by the company said extracting 50 trillion cubic feet or 12.8 percent of potential reserves would add $20 billion or 0.5 percent of GDP to the South African economy every year for 25 years and create 700,000 jobs.
Public opinion and policy ought to be informed by accurate data and reasoned arguments. To date, scaremongers would have us believe that that South Africa could become the next Armageddon earthquake location, or even Zombie Apocalypse destination (complete with Fallujah babies) once we begin fracking. Despite these alarmists, there are other reasons to oppose shale gas drilling.
Among reasonable concerns is deal-grabbing corruption between the ANC-led government and Shell. There is potential for disruption of sustainable activities like agriculture and tourism. There would also be the lack of an open study related thereto. There is the potential for water pollution and the failure of the applicants to play open cards about sourcing and disposing of water. There is a track record of inadequate environmental management plans of the applicants, Shell. There are also documented divisions in scientific opinion on the process of shale gas mining. Further, there is concern of the inability of the Department of Minerals to control other mining operations in South Africa, and the lack of structured input from other government departments such as health, transport, agriculture, and rural development.
In the ten years we would need to extract gas (that could last us for an unknown number of years) we should expand research into viable renewable energy sources. South Africa is known for its sunny days, abundant wind, and long coastlines. It would therefore be suitable for solar, wind and wave energy. Renewable energy sources are still considerably under-utilised in providing solutions to our energy problem. According to Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) an organisation striving to ensure awareness, advocacy and accountability around the issue of shale gas mining in South Africa, solar has averaged a compound annual growth rate of 65% for the past five years; a figure proved by sales of solar components – installations in 2010 alone amounted to 17 gigawatts – about 40% of South Africa’s current generation capacity.
Just hot air
Karoo shale gas is considered to be only a prospective resource at present, and will remain undiscovered until a hydraulically fractured test well produces enough gas to be of commercial interest. Thus, the economic value of Karoo shale will only be known once a statistically significant number of well flow rates have been measured. At the moment, aside from the hot air surrounding the pro and con debates, we don’t have any other fumes.
Listen to a podcast of the Radio Islam debate between Dr.Stefen Cramer (a semi-retired hydrogeologist from Germany) who represents a Southern African multi-faith environmental NPO against fracking, and Ivo Vegter, author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies.