The news that fracking has been given the go-ahead in South Africa comes as a surprise to many. The mineral resource minister made the announcement with little comment from the Department of Energy or from former Energy Minister Tina Joematt-Pettersson.
The two major focal points are: the potential repercussions to the environment and the need for shale gas to satisfy South Africa’s tight energy supply. It is a well-known fact that vast amounts of water are needed during the fracking process to extract the deeply embedded natural gas.
The decision to approve fracking comes at a time when the Western Cape is dealing with level 3b water restrictions and facing a projection of 100 days of water remaining, if water consumption continues at current levels.
Often potable water used in fracking is hardly recyclable due to the hundreds of chemical compounds used in the process. The 19million litres of water used on average in operations are a single pass component and might not be used again in agriculture, for industrial applications or human consumption. Instead, the water is merely discarded.
An argument therefore can be made that coal is less water intensive than fracking, using 2.5 times less water per thermal unit. Adding to this is the fact that there simply is not enough water in the Karoo for the purpose of fracking as well as agriculture and human consumption.
At a time of drought, the notion of setting up a fracking industry is absurd for the Cape provinces.
Furthermore, the government’s rhetoric about diversifying the energy mix is contradictory to their stance that additional power from renewables is not necessary, as the country has excess power.
Meanwhile, the government pushes the financially crippling nuclear deal, which will see an additional capacity of 9600 MW.
Natural gas is important nonetheless; because in relative terms it produces fewer emissions than coal burning activities (about 50 percent less CO2 emissions, 72 percent less NOX emissions and 99.7 percent less SO2 emissions). It therefore has its place in this energy mix.
The Gas-to-Power Procurement Programme in South Africa has seen progress in the last year.
Two sites, namely Richard’s Bay and Coega, have been selected to receive gas from offshore vessels, bringing natural gas from foreign sources.
The port of Coega is in relatively close proximity to the fracking sites. If shale gas does come to fruition, the purpose of Coega as a port to offload the gas comes into dispute. The Cape provinces will find themselves with natural gas sourced directly in-country, reducing costs and easing logistics.
Would Coega be turned into a natural gas liquefaction facility for export of excess gas? This would bring in further income and create jobs. Alternatively, would it lose its favourable position to land gas entirely? It remains to be seen.
The government will see staunch resistance from environmental activists if they don’t have the “mechanisms and instruments that seek to augment existing laws for the protection of water resources” as claimed by the government. As decision-makers proceed with shale gas developments in the Karoo, a trade-off must be considered: Energy security, economic benefits, and job creation on the one hand, countered by environmental responsibility and alternative options on the other.
The shale gas dilemma has become a contentious debate in South Africa, fraught with emotions and tension between industry and environmentalists. Public perception is caught in the middle.
Unfortunately, vested interest by both extremes of the argument has caused many facts to be taken out of context.
With experts on both sides of the argument, the truth is that we simply have no confirmation that shale gas can be extracted in South Africa in a manner that will not harm the environment of the Karoo. This uncertainty makes it difficult to proceed and, for decision-makers, ultimately becomes a matter of conscience.
Tilden Hellyer is an industry analyst, Energy & Environment at Frost & Sullivan.