/ 18 August 2011

Fracking: Gold mine or the Karoo’s doom?

“Shouldn’t we at least find out what’s in our own backyard before we make any decisions?” asked Maarten de Wit, head of earth stewardship science and the Africa Earth Observatory Network at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Referring to the Karoo “fracking” controversy, he spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week following publication of his scholarly article, “The great shale debate in the Karoo”. Published in the latest South African Journal of Science, the article asks hard questions about how much the key players in the controversy actually know.

Shell (among other interested energy companies), environmentalists and the department of mineral resources have been working with mere rumours about the existence of vast amounts of cheap shale gas in the Karoo — but that is all they are, De Wit told the M&G: rumours.

We know the gas is there but not how much there is — or not with any degree of certainty, he said. “How do you know if you can buy a house if you don’t know what’s in your bank account?” he asked.

If a gassy pot is indeed found at the end of the shale rainbow it could have massive social consequences for South Africa, such as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to coal, massive job creation and a surge in foreign investment interest, De Wit said.

Environmental scars
Environmental activists have taken great exception to the method, called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, that mining companies will use to explore how much gas there is, saying that it will leave nasty environmental scars on South Africa’s windmills-and-sheep landscape.

The energy companies say fracking will not injure the environment, but they are notoriously secretive about their information and financial dealings — and South Africa doesn’t have the expertise and skills to monitor them, De Wit said.

Government has placed a moratorium on fracking, pending the outcome of an investigation into the process and consultation with the public. Mining Minister Susan Shabangu announced on Thursday that this enforced pause would be extended by six months to allow for more public consultation.

A government task team recently ventured overseas to gather information about fracking, and its final report will go to the Cabinet in September.

Also this week, The New Age newspaper reported that the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) has invoked the Promotion of Access to information Act to obtain information about the government team, which apparently conducts most of its affairs behind closed doors.

‘Shell should fund independent probe’
Now De Wit has entered the fray, suggesting that Shell invest in and help to set up an independent monitoring system that will ensure environmentally safe methods and transparent financial practices are followed and that any riches will indeed benefit all South Africans.

That way, a much more informed, open and constructive debate can begin and skills in the science and technology arena will be developed, De Wits believes.

His thrust is that the fracking saga has turned a spotlight on South Africa’s critical lack of skills in science and technology.

An independent monitoring system would, he hopes, start the ball rolling towards a new phase of science and technology investment.

Shale gas ‘bonanza’
There is no doubt about the immense potential economic and social returns to be had from what De Wit calls a possible shale gas “bonanza” — but only if it is managed properly.

“For this, South Africa needs to build a new infrastructure that can dynamically monitor exploration activities on a number of fronts, by means of independent research and evaluation teams,” he wrote.

“We have no independent expertise in gas shale, fracking or horizontal drilling — Add to this the fact that our academic and research institutions do not work at the cutting edge of this rapidly evolving science and technology: We lack the capacity to gather the empirical data and to evaluate the potential for techniques like hydraulic fracturing to effect contamination of underground sources of drinking water.

“In South Africa we are failing in our capacity building — our best technicians have left the country; the best professors become administrators, consultants, or join the industrial army; and our most talented young graduates are lured to better jobs and training grounds provided by energy exploration companies.”

Setting up an independent monitoring system now, would, in a few years’ time, be able to effectively monitor the epic fracking saga but would also stimulate a much needed recovery of science and technology skills in South Africa.

Independence could not be guaranteed
The TKAG, however, says De Wit’s suggestion is flawed, as such an “independent” group could not help but be influenced by its funders.

“A group funded by a profit-making institution cannot escape a degree of loyalty and bias in favour of their funders,” the group’s chairperson, Jonathan Deal, told the M&G.

“A workable modification of De Wit’s idea, which may have merit, would be for the proposed body to be funded by government and not have any industry connection whatsoever. The suggestion, however, is ahead of itself in the current scenario because it bypasses larger and unresolved issues running through the debate.”

Thorough environmental assessment required
South Africa, he said, has not conducted a thorough environmental assessment of the benefits and costs of fracking, and needs to include in its debate everyone from the fur coats to farmers in their Fords.

“An assessment of this nature, even if funded with government funds and completely independent of industry would be of no use until and unless it includes every relevant environment, and, by implication, the associated government departments and relevant non-governmental organisations together with the hundreds and thousands of people that they represent.”

Shell spokesperson Kim Bye Bruun, told the M&G the company had already committed to setting up an “independent advisory committee to provide expert advice on environmental and social impact to ensure we reduce and mitigate impacts as far as possible”.

“This committee will also look … into development of the [Karoo] region and provide suggestions for contributing to economic and social growth over and above its commitments to social investment, local content of suppliers and job creation,” he said.

When pressed for details — such as who would be on this committee, whether the South African government would have a say and whether Shell’s plan would entail training South Africans in the science and technology industry, Bye Bruun was noncommittal.

The M&G‘s repeated attempts to get comment from the department of minerals were unsuccessful.

Lessons to be learned
De Wit concludes his article by saying that lessons needed to be learnt from the fracking saga by all interested parties.

The academic community should “do [their] homework well and focus on our grand challenges”.

Government should “provide the funds for centres of excellence where such work can be done in earnest and do not take half measures”.

Energy companies such as Shell should also be required to “redistribute a more significant slice of the company’s profits into educational and regulatory institutions”.

But Shell faces a perilous risk, De Wit said. If it helps fund an independent monitoring system with the initial aim of focusing on the Karoo concerns, that would be a victory for South Africa but not necessary for the company.

“Shell might not ever find enough gas that’s worth mining,” he said. “It might actually just pack up its gear and walk away.”