Energy firms approach the search for new sources of fuel with the same fervour as drug addicts seek their next fix.
And this “last fix” for those who have dedicated their lives to “selling carbon”, said hydrogeology expert, Dr Stefan Cramer, based at the University of Witwatersrand, is what fracking, also known as the extracting of shale gas from underground, represents.
Cramer shared his thoughts at a seminar titled “Six Reasons why the Karoo will not be Fracked... If Reason Prevails” hosted by the Centre for Civil Society based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on Tuesday.
“It’s simple, if companies take the geology of the Karoo, its water issues, the infrastructure that will have to be built, the country’s business culture, the country’s political and economic issues SA faces, they will see that this is not a good idea,” said the semi-retired hydrogeologist from Germany, living in Graaff-Reinet, and a science adviser to the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute in Cape Town.
Cramer studies the particular risks to groundwater contamination from shale gas developments in the Karoo and advises local communities on the science and technology of “fracking”.
While the Karoo has been bandied about as a possible site of extraction, some mining companies have also begun examining other areas around the country, including those in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.
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.
The Daily News reported that 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.
Cramer said little information on the status of these studies had been made available publicly, but dismissed the feasibility of the venture for the Karoo specifically and South Africa in general.
He unpacked each of the points during the course of his presentation.
“The more we learn about the complexities of the Karoo geology, the more it becomes clear that resource estimates are merely thumb-sucking in the absence of hard data...
“A consensus is emerging among South African water specialists that we simply know far too little about the deeper levels of groundwater and preferential pathways along which contamination from fracking fluids could travel upward into the current drinking water supplies.”
He said there was also “simply not enough water for fracking”. “Trucking water from outside the Karoo (from where?) would be prohibitively expensive and unpractical. Even outside the Karoo sources are scarce...”
He said that even if there were gas in the Karoo, there was simply no infrastructure in place to process it.
“Remember, most shale gas wells lose up to 70 percent of their production rates in the first year and then trail off at 10-20 per cent of their capacity.
“Thus, more and more wells need to be drilled, more power stations added or even moved, hardly an economic model. Even the transmission lines would have to be erected first, as the grid is barely sufficient for low usage distribution.”
He said that another reason for the absence of visible progress on the ground was the absence of a legal framework.
“The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act is totally inconsistent with the requirements of the onshore oil and gas industry and is in the process of being re-written.