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It’s fracking profitable, but fraught with danger

Published Jun 22, 2011

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Ufrieda Ho

A SMARTphone snapshot is passed around, it’s an image of the Karoo.

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“Wow, it looks just like Pinedale,” says one of the three American Shell Oil employees peering into the screen.

They’re leading a group of South African reporters around the Wyoming basin where Shell has had a hydraulic fracturing operation for natural gas since 2001.

Shell has its eye trained on fracking in the Karoo, too.

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Along with Falcon Oil & Gas, Anglo American, Bundu Gas and Oil and a joint venture between Sasol, Statoil of Norway and Chesapeake Energy of the US, they are waiting for the green light for their exploration licences.

But the similarities don’t extend much beyond the likeness of the shrubs and the wide openness of the landscape. The semi-desert Karoo is not the Pinedale basin. The fracking operations here present an unlikely blueprint of what the Western Cape can expect if the moratorium on fracking is lifted.

The differences in South Africa are many: financial pressures, infrastructural constraints, climatic conditions, community sentiment, corporate cultures and legislative frameworks.

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Shell’s Pinedale asset in the Green River Basin stretches over 800km2. Here the gas is in pockets, in the Karoo it’s a continuous shale layer. There are 66 Shell employees here.

Contractors and downstream jobs make up other jobs, but it’s not the thousands of jobs promised for the Karoo.

They work Shell’s 400 gas wells in the largest gas fields in the US that’s estimated to be able to supply 10 million homes for 30 years. Shell uses directional drilling on pads about the size of a double garage.

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Each pad holds clusters of six or seven wells. These pads are dotted across the landscape.

Consolidated pads are meant to reduce disruption to the natural landscape and migration patterns of local wildlife.

Each well is drilled to about 4.3km with lubricants of diesel and fresh water – more than 20 million litres for each well. The well is encased at its upper regions, a measure to prevent ground water contamination.

But blow-outs can happen, leaks occur and groundwater does get contaminated. France has banned fracking, so has Quebec in Canada and New York and numerous counties across the US have fracking moratoriums.

After drilling a secondary cylinder filled with explosives blasts holes through the casing, and the fracking fluids, sand and water are pumped at high pressure to break up the rock and create a conductive path for the gas to be released.

Keeley Balley, a Shell completions engineer, says the fluid is about 94 percent water and the rest is sand. The chemical additives, Shell says, amount to only 0.49 percent typical frack fluid. Balley says the chemical mix depends on pH, porosity and salinity. Chemicals are added for viscosity, protecting pipe corrosion and preventing the precipitation of metal oxides. Industry’s frack fluid list includes acids, sodium chloride, ethylene glycol, isopropanol, polyacrylamide, guar gum and ammonium bisulfite. Their common applications are seemingly innocuous, including table salt, play sand, washing powder and make-up remover.

Most of the fluid is recovered during flowback from drilling, but some is left underground. Non-disclosure of the exact fracking fluid mix has resulted in enduring concerns that the fluids include cancer-causing chemicals.

Shell Pinedale has a water treatment facility that recovers condensate, an oil derivative, and recycles about 60 percent of its water.

The Dutch-owned company uses catalyst technology to reduce nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds. It has been able to reduce nitrogen oxide from 80 tons a rig a year to 5 tons a rig a year. Truck trips have been reduced to minimise carbon dioxide emissions from diesel engines and many operations are automated.

Fracking here takes place on federal land, so it’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But environmental monitoring costs big money. In 2008 $2 million was set aside for air quality monitoring alone in the county.

Not all locals are convinced that fracking should take place at all. About an hour and a half from Pinedale is Jackson Hole.

A banner in the town says “Don’t frack the Hoback” – the Hoback is a nearby county earmarked for drilling.

Shell scrapped a meeting with community leaders from the original media itinerary.

But a local bookstore owner and computer geeks spoke up.

“People are worried about what’s happening to our water, about the high ozone, especially in winter, that never used to be a problem,” said one woman.

Breathing in high concentrations of ozone causes respiratory problems.

In extreme cases it causes scarring of lung tissue and disrupts lung function.

She added: “We’re not crazy about the drilling, but people do get extra work from the oil companies. But our roads are taking a beating with the trucks and extra traffic.

“Blue-collar workers in town have brought drug and alcohol abuse problems. I never used to lock my doors.”

They’re worried in the Karoo, too. Jonathan Deal, of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, says the precautionary principle must apply.

He fears that the government will not see beyond short-term profits and will be pressured to reciprocate Shell’s long-time loyalty to the ruling party.

Deal says it’s time to worry. New applications for fracking licences stretch to KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng. “It’s a South African issue, not a Karoo issue.”

The Department of Mineral Resources will report back to the cabinet next month.

It’s only three months after the moratorium was put in place. Deal says there hasn’t been enough transparency, inclusivity, consultation or due process.

Professor Jan Glazewski of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at UCT and a member of the Cape Bar says such haste must surely amount to a report that is a “back of a cigarette box” study.

Glazewski questions why the department’s task team has not been disclosed and why the department leads the investigating team at the exclusion of other ministries that have clear stakes.

“There is a lot of secrecy around this task team and with the department driving the process it’s tantamount to the wolf guarding the hen house.”

Glazewski says Pinedale is not the accurate comparison to make for the Karoo.

“Look at Shell in the Niger Delta in Nigeria and its track record there.”

Shell was tied up in lawsuits for human rights violations there, most notably the death of Ogoni environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995. Shell denied responsibility in these violations, but settled out of court in recent years.

Glazewski also draws parallels with the acid mine drainage crisis in Gauteng, a 120-year mining legacy that’s put profits before people and environment.

The acid mine drainage disaster means that clean, affordable drinking water is slipping from our hands.

It holds lessons for fracking; we may have energy for decades, but what water will we have to drink and what air will we breathe?

l Ufrieda Ho was hosted by Shell in the US

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