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Department points out 'merits' of controlled fracking

Richard Davies

There is "merit" in carrying out some fracking for shale gas in the Karoo, environmental affairs director-general Nosipho Ngcaba says.

There is “merit” in carrying out some hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for shale gas in the Karoo, environmental affairs director general Nosipho Ngcaba said on Wednesday.

“It does seem there is merit, from our own perspective as a department, on exceptional experimental work that would have to be undertaken under highly controlled conditions,” she told a media briefing at Parliament.

The department had said so in recent written inputs to the interdepartmental task team, set up just over a year ago by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu to investigate fracking.

Ngcaba said these would now have to be considered by Shabangu and the various options examined before her team finalised a report for Cabinet.

There would have to be a “clear understanding” of the technologies that would be used to extract the shale gas.

She said her department’s inputs had noted, in particular, “the avoidance of the contamination of fresh water resources” in the Karoo region.

Fracking operations
Further, there should be understanding that carrying out fracking operations “would require an enormous amount of water” and that the Karoo was dry.

Fracking involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure down a borehole into the rock strata containing the shale gas.

The process releases the gas, which flows out of the borehole to the surface, where it is captured and contained.

Ngcaba said environmental affairs had also raised concerns in its inputs about the use of shale gas, a fossil fuel, and the impact of doing so on South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions profile.

It had also noted that fracking could have an impact in the area set aside for construction of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.

Speaking at the briefing, Water Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said Shabangu was expected to table her team’s report on fracking to Cabinet.

Water matters
She also said further discussion was needed on water matters before this could be done.

“We obviously would need to just jointly do a bit of work in that regard.”

Molewa told journalists Shabangu was “not withholding the report, but just finalising a few things that need to be looked at”.

Earlier this year, Shabangu said the report would go to Cabinet on March 31.

In that month, business consultancy Econometrix said in a report that if the amount of shale gas—lying about 4 000m to 5 000m below the Karoo surface—was confirmed, it could provide the equivalent of 400 years’ worth of energy consumption in South Africa.

It called for the government to get moving on exploring the potential of its suspected shale gas fields.

Employment potential
“This is big stuff in terms of contribution to GDP, in terms of employment potential. Even if the gas finds turn out to be a lot smaller than the estimate ... we are talking about a mighty big fish,” Econometrix economist Tony Twine said at the time.

The Karoo shale gas was currently only a “suspected resource” of about 485-trillion cubic feet.

If this was correct—and using a projection model of 4% of the estimated resource—there could be, according to the report, an annual economic impact of more than R80-billion to the country’s GDP.

Several companies, including oil giant Shell, are seeking permission to explore for shale gas across tens of thousands of square kilometres of the Karoo.

Environmentalists, landowners and others are opposed to this, saying fracking could contaminate groundwater in the region.

The fierce debate prompted Shabangu to last year declare a moratorium on fracking until her team had completed its investigations.

Wednesday’s media briefing comes ahead of debate in the National Assembly later in the day on environmental affairs’ 2012/13 budget.—Sapa

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