File photo: Greg Maxwell.

Durban - Fracking the north-western parts of Kwa-Zulu-Natal could tip an already unstable environment over the edge.

This is the assessment of environmental groups who have already begun lobbying against shale-gas fracking in the area, even though the proposed exploration is still in its infancy stages.

Mining companies, meanwhile, say that it is too soon to be discussing environmental risks – especially since the process has not yet been approved.

The areas being examined encompass the Ladysmith-Bergville areas; Newcastle; the northern border with Mozambique, including part of the Tembe Elephant Park but an exact area, in terms of kilometres, has not yet been demarcated.

Fracking involves injecting a high-pressure cocktail of chemicals, water and sand deep into the earth to fracture rock to extract natural fuel gas.

Anti-fracking activist and founder of the water conservation body the Spoor Foundation, Sandy Wayland, said shale gas (methane) was found in microscopic bubbles within the shale rock, “much like an Aero chocolate bar”.

“It is just much, much smaller and it (shale rock) is by nature already fractured over the millennia by geological processes and these fractures are called ‘joints’. The process of fracturing actually re-fractures the shale and releases the trapped gas.

“Because shale is found in thin layers and not big pockets like oil, the invention of horizontal drilling was born, to enable the industry to access the product viably.”

The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs said via its minister, Edna Molewa, in September last year that the process would be examined as a “controlled activity”. This has not yet been completed.

“Our primary focus at the moment is to prevent shale gas extraction from happening in South Africa, which is internationally recognised as being a water scarce country.”

But the Sungu Sungu group, the mining company currently engaged in “desktop studies” of the area (examining the stability and build of the land) for the proposed mining activity, said that, at this early stage, fracking would not be on the cards for “a long time”.

The permit was issued to the company and allows it to acquire seismic data (relating to earthquakes or denoting geological surveying methods involving vibrations produced artificially by explosions) but did not include any prospecting or exploration activities.

This kind of study is usually used to focus early planning and engineering of any project and gathers and analyses existing data from the public domain, scientific and commercial databases and available project sources.

The group’s geophysicist, Solomon Lephoto, said this process would only be completed in a year’s time.

“We do not know the way forward or when this (mining) will commence.”

The budget for these studies, he said, was variable depending on the level of the studies.

He said the company was not yet in possession of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) because one was not needed for this stage of study.

He also acknowledged the concerns of environmental groups but said that their concerns would be addressed in the EIA.

Lephoto also dismissed claims made in media reports that the company had “exploratory rights”.

“We can’t take the time to educate every journalist who gets it wrong, but it is wrong. We are not at that (exploratory) stage yet.”

But Wayland and her organisation said that it was not too early to be looking at the possible risks, since the studies into the area’s feasibility were already being done.

She explained that after this stage, plans would be made to “map” the layout of the shale underground.

“Once a suitable seam is found industry will clear what’s known as a ‘pad’. A pad can be anything from 1 to 2.5 hectares (1km to 2.5km2) of land. This land is used to put down the wells for that pad.”

She added a pad could have anything from six to 32 wells on it.

“This pad is now industrialised land, and will accommodate the trucks needed, the wellheads, the frack water ponds and the flow back catchment ponds.

Up to 2 500 trucks (petrol tanker size trucks) can be used for one well.

Up to 20 million litres of water can be used to frack one well.”

She added: “None of the water used in shale gas mining is viable for human, animal or plant consumption – it is irretrievably carcinogenic (and) toxic and radioactive.

“Very brief research shows that no less than 10 endangered species live in or around the area earmarked for shale gas mining near the Drakensberg, including the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), the Blue crane and Oribi antelope.”

Plants, including the Cloud Protea and the Spiral Aloe, might also be affected. - Daily News