Mapping the future of fracking

Laingsburg in the Karoo, where an environmental assessment on whether to explore for shale gas has just released its first chapter, asking the big question on whether our water-scarce country can afford fracking in the Great Karoo. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Laingsburg in the Karoo, where an environmental assessment on whether to explore for shale gas has just released its first chapter, asking the big question on whether our water-scarce country can afford fracking in the Great Karoo. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Published Mar 12, 2016


An environmental assessment on shale gas exploration may bring ‘us’ and ‘them’ closer, writes Sarah Wild

It began in 2010: whispers of “shale gas”, “game changer”, “fracking” and “Karoo”. They issued from boardrooms, diplomatic quarters, government circles and the quiet corners of sleepy towns and soon infiltrated conversations all around South Africa.

By 2013, this murmur had turned into a cacophony of contestation, thousands of newspaper centimetres and hours of television time. Should South Africa frack the Karoo Basin, where there was an estimated 485 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas?

There was little room for middle ground in the fracking debate: you were either with us, or against us. (“Us” was either the “protectors of South Africa’s environmental and cultural heritage” or “pragmatists trying to push economic development and energy security”. Them was, respectively, “greedy, self-serving capitalists” or “dirty hippies”.)

It took five years for the government to say, “Wait a minute, let’s ask the experts.”

This week, the strategic environmental assessement for shale gas development in South Africa released the first chapter of its report. There will be a number of others, dealing with different aspects of shale gas exploration, such as water, infrastructure, among 10 other aspects. This report aims to give a common ground for discussion: what will the future look like in each fracking scenario? To date, there has been no collective understanding of what fracking means to South Africa.

The report lays out four scenarios, four South African futures: no fracking; exploration that yields no economically viable shale; five-trillion cubic feet of gas which would be enough for a 1 000MW open-cycle gas turbine power station; and 20 trillion cubic feet of gas, which could power two 2 000MW power stations as well as a gas to liquid facility.

Their estimates of possible gas reserves in South Africa’s shale are much more conservative than previous ones.

This provides the basis for future chapters with more details on the requirements and consequences of fracking in South Africa.

But, although the report claims to make no value judgments about whether or not fracking should be allowed, it does make a number of important – and obvious in retrospect – observations.

The Karoo is huge and does not only include the picturesque tableaus of windmill and sheep.The strategic environmental assessment area, referred to as geographic sub-regions, includes the Great Karoo, the Eastern Cape Midlands, Eastern Cape Traditional and Sundays River Valley. Treating this as one great homogenous space is like saying that Graaf-Reinet (Great Karoo), Grahamstown (Eastern Cape Midlands) and Lady Frere (Eastern Cape Traditional) are all the same towns.

Each of these places will respond to shale gas exploration differently – and not just in terms of whether the geology points to shale gas. History has divided the strategic environmental assessment area: large tracts of it comprise former homelands, which are substantially less developed than traditionally white areas and less able to absorb investment. Additionally, parts of it are also under tribal authority, where issues of tenure, among others, constrain investment.

The breadth of the study area also means biodiversity differs. The majority of the area (62 percent) is in the Nama Karoo biome. There have been many claims that the Karoo is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. That is now entirely true: which part of the Karoo?

According to the assessment authors, there are no reliable estimates of biodiversity of the Nama Karoo. Some studies indicate, however, that in comparison to the Succulent Karoo biome (which forms about 9 percent of the study area in the far west), the Nama Karoo’s biodiversity is relatively poor.

Even if there is no shale gas exploration, the world’s climate is changing and so is the Karoo’s. Average temperatures are expected to rise and hot days (days where the temperature is above 35ºC) are projected to become more frequent.

At the moment, since the average rainfall ranges from 100mm in the west to 400mm in the east, many Karoo communities rely on groundwater to survive. A very valid concern is that shale gas exploration will contaminate this ground water, or water for the drilling and fracturing processes will be sourced from these aquifers. Future chapters will deal with water sourcing and recycling, but this report has – through pulling together data from other places in the world where this has been done before – put a number to the water requirements.

This ranges per scenario, depending on whether any of the water is recycled. For the range of scenarios, the minimum amount of water (for exploration) is about 319 110m3, which is 128 Olympic swimming pools worth of water. The most water used (which is for scenario three in which there are two 2 000MW power stations and a gas-to-liquid plant and none of the water is recycled) is about 87 million cubic metres of water, which is just under three times the volume of beverages produced by SABMiller in 2015 (32.4 million megalitres). The question of where this water will come from, how it will get to these remote areas and to what extent companies should be forced to recycle (and the price tag on that), is something the authors will have to answer in future chapters and something we, living in an increasing water-scarce country and region, need to keep our eyes on.

The assessment team is working against the clock to get its full report out within the next year, as Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti said this week exploration will begin in the next financial year.

But science advice can only guide policy makers and the government so far: while the science may inform their decision, it is not the only factor driving them. Slow economic growth, electricity constraints and growing unemployment may tip the scales in favour of a new possible industry, especially ahead of national elections in 2019.

However, since this assessment team’s findings are all open-source and available at http://seasgd.csir., we will know which consequences the government may be ignoring if they push ahead with shale gas exploration and the areas that need civil society’s constant scrutiny.

At least now we can open a real debate about whether shale gas is a viable alternative for the country, or – at the very least – allow people to have more nuanced positions on the issue.

Weekend Argus

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