A gas flare burns at a frackiing site in the United States. File picture: Les Stone

Johannesburg - A government sanctioned study into Karoo shale gas prospects has pointed out an array of uncertainties related to water requirements, availability of skills and the socio-economic impact of the development of shale gas in South Africa.

The Karoo is estimated to have between 19 trillion and 23 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of available free gas across an area of at least 60 000 square kilometres to 100 000km².

The Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) published a report yesterday titled, “South Africa’s Technical Readiness to Support the Shale Gas Industry”, of a study that was commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology in 2014.

The department wanted to assess current available information and technologies should shale gas exploitation be implemented to counter energy challenges.

The study focused on, among other things, the technologies and capabilities related to exploration for shale gas, drilling and extraction of shale gas, as well as distribution and exploitation of shale gas. It also considered the legal, regulatory and governance aspects related to shale gas developments.

The cabinet considered the report last month in which a panel chaired by UCT academic Cyril O’Connor said there was need for clarity on the availability of underground saline water, “given that it is unlikely that potable groundwater will be used for any such exploitation”.

Opponents of shale gas exploration in the Karoo often single out groundwater contamination as a risk.

The panel also flagged a skills shortage, saying there was a dearth of high-level technical competencies.

Skills shortage

The panel said long-term strategies needed to be set in place to develop the skills that would be required for the sustainable development of the shale gas industry.

“These uncertainties are indicative of the risks and challenges associated with the establishment of a shale gas industry in South Africa. It is also necessary to appreciate that a shale gas industry in many respects is akin to a manufacturing industry and hence requires degrees of certainty that are normally associated with similar cost-driven industries.”

It said it was critical to have an “an appropriate” degree of clarity regarding the pricing structures that might prevail when the industry began exploiting the shale gas reserves.

“Such clarity would also be important in enabling appropriate decisions to be made when evaluating the best options to adopt in addressing the energy challenge.

“If shale gas is to be a significant contributor to the energy mix in South Africa then it will be important to encourage the operators, while at the same time stimulating the market.”

In the report, the panel said the lead time for the full implementation of a shale gas industry in South Africa would be at least 10 years from the time of the award of the first exploration licences.

It said decision-making processes on whether or not to proceed with the development of a shale gas industry should be based on robust and peer-reviewed evidence.