Journalist Heather Dugmore is up in arms about Shell’s bid to start hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) over 30000 square kilometres in the Karoo in the hunt for natural gas reserves. Here’s her article “Will Shell Frack up the Karoo?” which ran widely in the press this week:
Farmers, communities, environmental organisations, geologists and water specialists are up in arms about global energy and petrochemical company Shell’s application to explore for shale gas over 30 000 square kilometres in the water-stressed Karoo.
The proposed exploration method, called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ involves drilling boreholes 4-5 kilometres deep, followed by the introduction of a mixture of chemicals, sand and millions of litres of water into the boreholes under enormous pressure to fracture the geological structures and force the free-flow of shale gas, also called ‘natural gas’.
This process determines whether viable amounts of shale gas exist for future exploitation based on the same method.
“Fracking has been described as ‘planting chemical bombs underground’ says Environmental Consultant and farmer, Fritz Bekker who is spearheading an opposition group of farmers and non-government organisations against another application by a company called Advasol (Pty) Limited to explore for gas from Struisbaai to Mossel Bay, extending 20 kilometres down the southern Cape coast.
“With an approved exploration right, an applicant such as Shell may drill as many exploration boreholes as it can afford, which may be hundreds or even thousands depending on the area’s geology. Each borehole may be subjected to the fracking process,” continues Bekker.
“It is important to note that the most significant adverse environmental impacts of earth gas exploration may already occur during the exploration phase.
“Fracking has been condemned in many countries in the world and despite assurances from companies using this method that they will prevent any leakages, I need to warn farmers, landowners and communities in the Karoo that it poses a significant threat of chemical and gas contamination to the region’s scarce water sources. Both the surface and ground water is highly vulnerable to contamination once pressurized shale gas is liberated through the drilling and fracking process.
“The long-term effects of toxic chemicals used in the fracking process are only now becoming apparent in countries where it has been used. The chemicals used during fracking in America have been positively linked to cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, asthma, learning disorders and endocrine disrupting effects.”
“If they drill they will also need large quantities of water and storage space for vast volumes of flammable, potentially toxic drilling mud in dams close to each drilling site.”
Shell’s background document states that they are investigating a number of potential water sources to support the water-intensive fracking process, including “sea water, surface water and deep saline aquifers”. What they fail to say is that millions upon millions of litres of water are required for the process, which the Karoo does not have, and that as Bekker says: “It takes one litre of hydrocarbons such as shale gas to pollute one million litres of water.
Shell has appointed Golder Associates (Golder) to compile the Environmental Management Plan and to undertake the public consultation process. Shell’s application to explore for shale gas has been submitted to the Petroleum Agency South Africa (PASA), which administers applications as a designated agent of the Minister of Energy. Golder’s background information document states: “PASA is expected to make a decision during 2011 whether to award the initial three year exploration rights.”
Brent Baxter, Business Unit Leader, Environmental Services at Golder explains that “once a company lodges an application for an exploration right under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act they have 120 days to submit an Environmental Management Programme (EMP) in support of the exploration rights application. This is a legislated timeframe. Shell thus needs to submit an EMP, in support of each of the three exploration rights applications that they have lodged in the Karoo, by 18 April 2011.”
To compile the research required for the EMP, the background document says: “a number of technical studies will be undertaken as part of the EMP process. Desktop studies will cover the larger application area and some fieldwork will be undertaken in selected areas to support the findings of the desktop studies.”
The mention of “some fieldwork” is alarming. “The EMP by its nature must include specialist studies by geologists, ecologists, as well as specialist groundwater and surface water studies. Without these studies they cannot responsibly comment on the potential impact of gas exploration or mining required in the EMP,” Fritz Bekker explains. The applicant will not be able to budget for the management or mitigation of adverse environmental impacts that they have not identified properly during this phase of the application.
Specialist environmental surveys such as botanical, hydrological and ground water investigations should be planned to take cognizance of seasonal variance, which is now not possible because of Shell’s haste to obtain approval.
Baxter responds that “fieldwork to inform the EMP will be conducted by specialists between mid January and early February 2011 after which the draft EMP will be compiled. This fieldwork will of necessity be broad-based seeking to characterise the broad environment within which the proposed project takes place and seeking to verify information available in public datasets, such as national groundwater database information.”
This means they are giving themselves two to three weeks of fieldwork to inform an EMP of this magnitude. Baxter says the period cannot be extended because of the 18 April deadline to submit to PASA.
It begs the question whether an environmental management plan can ethically be presented without an indepth assessment of the potential impact on the environment.
Baxter reassures that an Environmental Impact Assessment will be conducted “for any activities which are listed under the NEMA, before exploration activities commence”.
One would expect so, but it still does not address the potential fracture in the EMP process. Asked why Golder and Shell did not rather apply for the period granted for the submission of the EMP to be extended, Baxter said this was not possible.
The first of several meetings to be hosted by Shell and Golder is to take place in the Karoo town of Hofmeyr on Monday 24.
Many farmers, communities and interested and affected organisations have not been informed about the meetings, nor about the application. Those who are aware of it are trying to spread the word as widely as possible, which is what Golder should be doing. However many interested and affected parties attend, it promises to be a heated exchange.
Asked how they had advertised the meetings, Golder’s Public Participation Officer, Toni Pietersen, replied that they placed adverts in national and community newspapers. She said that it is unfortunate that they were placed approximately one week before the meetings were scheduled to begin; explaining that the Christmas period had hampered the timing. She adds that they had sent emails and posted the background documents to as many landowners, communities, farmers and affected organisations as they could locate.
Their distribution process appears to be lacking since not even the President of Agri Eastern Cape, Ernest Pringle, who farms in the affected area, received contact or background information from them. Neither did the Chair of the Rooihoogte Farmer’s Association in the Middelburg district, Ed Kingwill, nor did the Regional Chief Director for the Department of Water Affairs in the Eastern Cape, nor the Nama Karoo Foundation, the conservation agency working to protect and preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the Karoo, based in Richmond and Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo.
All received the information by chance via associates.
“I have seen a documentary on frack mining and after I watched it I thought thank god I will never have to deal with this in the Karoo. So I thought until I received word about Shell’s application two days ago,” says the Nama Karoo Foundation’s Marina Beal.
“Water, much of which is ancient water dating back millions of years, is the most precious commodity in the Karoo. This is a semi-desert area and it is a well-known fact how scarce water is in the Karoo, many parts of which are only now emerging from one of the worst droughts in decades. The potential for contamination of water through fracking is significant and potentially environmentally devastating.”
Geohydrologist, Ahee Coetsee, who farms in the Middelburg district comments:
“My initial reaction is that we all have to be extremely careful because despite assurances from mining companies that they follow ethical and green environmental procedures, we only need to look at the coal fields and acid mine drainage to know that while we might have excellent environmental laws, the enforcement of them and technical know-how is lacking.
“We simply do not understand enough about the aquifer systems in the Karoo, which is why various studies are being done, such as by the Water Research Commission to look at the dolerite ring aquifer systems of the Karoo, from the surface to a depth of 3-500 metres.
“There are many and varied aquifer systems in the Karoo, some dating back 300 million years and older. If Shell is planning to drill down to 4 kilometres and more, and if the boreholes constructed are not 100%, there can be cross contamination between aquifer systems.
“If they do not comprehensively research and understand the hydro-geology of the exploration area, then they will need to be investigated from a technical and legal point of view.”
Professor Bruce Rubidge, Director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaentological Research at Wits University elaborates that when Shell talks about drilling down 4-5 kilometres in the Karoo, they are talking about accessing the Ecca group of rocks dated at approximately 270-million years: a time when the Karoo was an ancient marine environment.
The Karoo is globally renowned for its fantastic wealth of fossil material, and Rubidge, who is a son of the Karoo, says “I care greatly for the Karoo and I would hate to see a big petroleum industry set up there. It would destroy the character of the Karoo.”
Shell justifies the application in its background document by referring to shale gas as “the cleanest of the fossil fuels” and stating that: “South Africa is faced with the challenge of being able to meet future energy demands of an expanding economy. Developing a natural gas energy supply to help meet this growing demand would be of considerable value to South Africa.”
What they fail to state is that the carbon footprint becomes outsize if they start calculating the process of extraction of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing, the process of accessing water from an as yet unidentified source, including possibly transporting in sea water, transporting the gas to market and the potential environmental degradation in this pristine part of the world.
As Africa’s highest emitter of carbon, the government has committed to transform to a low carbon economy with a focus on renewable energy programmes, notably solar and wind. The Karoo is high on sun for solar power plants but extremely low on water.