Fresh fracking furore

Published Dec 14, 2011


A new environmental impact report by the US Environmental Protection Agency finding that hydraulic fracturing – known as “fracking” – in Wyoming was the likely source of contamination of groundwater appears not to have put a damper on interest in extracting shale gas in the Karoo.

Royal Dutch Shell – potentially the largest player in the new industry in South Africa – yesterday was adamant that the conditions for fracking would be completely different in South Africa as the operation would be carried out at far greater depths than in the US.

It also placed a question mark over the report, noting that it was merely a draft.

Jonathan Deal of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), said the finding – after a three-year study – that fracking was the likely source of contamination of groundwater near the town of Pavillion in Wyoming – should send “shock waves” through the oil and gas industry, including those companies interested in fracking in the Karoo.

The agency had dug two monitoring wells in the aquifer in the Pavillion area and found that synthetic chemicals such as glycols and alcohols “consistent with gas production” had been detected, as well as hydraulic fracturing fluids, including highly noxious benzene concentrations well above safe drinking water standards. The report also noted high methane levels in the area.

Deal said: “There are more than a thousand cases, especially in the US, where fracking is blamed for groundwater contamination, but the oil and gas industry consistently claims that they are unaware of any documented cases.”

Jan-Willem Eggink, the upstream general manager for Shell South Africa, said the mining at Pavillion – carried out by Encana, a Canadian company that owns the gas field around the town – should answer any questions relating to the interim agency report, “but some of the findings have been disputed”.

Eggink also argued that fracking in South Africa would take place at depths of “two to three kilometres down” below the water table. Comparing Wyoming with the proposed operations in the Karoo was “comparing apples with pears”.

Shell would be applying “appropriate operating standards” and contamination of water would not occur.

Deal said fracking would involve boring through aquifers to get to greater depths which carried the risk of alien chemicals escaping into groundwater.

Hydraulic fracturing forms part of a complex procedure – involving water, sand and additive injection at high pressure – that makes it possible to extract natural gas from deep below the earth’s surface.

Last December, the Petroleum Agency of SA (Pasa) accepted an application for exploration rights by Shell for an area of 95 000km2 in the Karoo’s eastern, central and western area, from Dordrecht in the east to Sutherland in the west.

Two moratoriums on exploration have subsequently been placed by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu while the department carries out a study of the potential environmental impact and economic potential of hydraulic fracturing.

The moratoriums have effectively stopped Shell in its tracks, but the latest six-month moratorium expires in February and it is unlikely that it will be imposed again. Shabangu’s spokesman would not budge on which way the pendulum on fracking would fall. “The minister will communicate this,” Zingaphi Jakuja said.

Other companies that have shown an interest in fracking include Falcon Oil & Gas, which has sought exploration rights for an area of 100 000km2 in the Karoo that stretches from Ceres in the west to Klipplaat in the east.

Bundu Oil & Gas has focused on an area of 35 000km2 around Graaff-Reinet, Pearston, Somerset East and Cradock. Sungu Sungu has also applied for a technical co-operation permit.

Sasol, which led a consortium with Statoil and Chesapeake Energy Corporation, withdrew its hydraulic fracturing interest in an 88 000km2 area across southern KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern Cape and parts of the Free State.

Eggink has argued that South Africa could become energy self-sufficient within a decade if commercially producible gas volumes were discovered in the Karoo.

He reported the US Energy Information Administration estimated that there were 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the Karoo which would make South Africa energy self-sufficient in for decades. - Donwald Pressly

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