Fracking opens deep divisions

Fracking in the Karoo has opened up deep divisions despite the government’s moratorium on all prospecting, pending an investigation into its impact.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves drilling deep holes to capture methane gas within the shale. Oil company Shell wants to go into the Karoo but some experts are horrified by the idea. Others see it as an exciting opportunity.

At a debate hosted by the Johannesburg Press Club and EE Publishers this week, Dr Anthony Turton, a professor at the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State, felt the issue went down to the public’s lack of trust in large corporations and the government. “If Shell hadn’t engaged the way they did, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s in a part of the country that is highly water constrained. It may have a small population but it is a population of people not dependent on the government,” he said.

Karoo farmers are campaigning against fracking, concerned that the drilling could contaminate the area’s drinking water.

Professor Phillip Lloyd of the Energy Institute at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology said more than a million holes had been drilled globally in the past 60 years. That experience had shown that, although spillage was a major issue, it was possible to minimise and mitigate against it. There was minimal evidence, he said, that fracking contaminated drinking water supplies.

But Dr Chris Hartnady, a geologist and the director of Umvoto Africa, disagreed saying that in his experience the highest risk was the contamination of ground water because of cement failure in well casings. “It is the Achilles heel of the system,” he said.

Journalist Ivo Vegter said the anti-fracking campaigns were dishonest. “There is no credible evidence to show that shale ­drilling is risky.”

He said the only real contamination was that of methane being released from the shale, but it was not a regulated substance in drinking water. “If they say it will poison the water, I’m afraid what they are selling is absolute swindle,” Vegter said.

More alarming, Hartnady noted, was the risk of earthquakes should there be tectonic stress around the boreholes. “I call the Karoo the Cape stress province. Poking and stressing holes in the Karoo is like poking a lion with a stick — you do it at your own peril.”

But Vegter disagreed. He said there was no significant seismic risk in hydraulic fracking and it would not cause cracks that could reach the aquifers, as some detractors had claimed.

Lloyd said if Shell invested exploration cash in South Africa it would create thousands of jobs.

It could reduce the greenhouse gas footprint in South Africa and the impact on the Karoo would be minimal, he said.

The natural gas resource was massive and could mean that one day there would be combined gas turbines all along the coast. “It could break Eskom’s monopoly,” he said. Turton said the data that decisions were based on needed to be open, transparent and credible. He also felt not enough effort was put into understanding renewables. “I support the precautionary principles. We need our decisions to be based on the best possible science,” he said.

But Lloyd described the precautionary principle as an “intellectual cop-out” because it was impossible to prove a negative. “It just doesn’t add up in spite of its seductiveness,” he said.

Turton said the solution had to be negotiated. “What will emerge is a new social contract. It will change the way large corporations deal with things in South Africa.”

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Lisa Steyn
Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a masters degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen.

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