By Matt Styslinger
Shell Oil Company is planning to drill for natural gas over a large section of South Africa’s Karoo region using a controversial method known as fracking. Local landowners worry that the impact from Shell’s drilling operations will have environmentally damaging effects, including chemical contamination, a drop in the water table, and even explosions. “It [would be] the end of our livelihood, not only ours, but all the people we employ as well,” said Douglas Stern, a fourth generation Karoo farmer in a television interview about local opposition to the plans.
The fear is echoed by many in the Karoo, a vast semi-desert region of South Africa that traverses the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Northern Cape provinces. Although farmers may own their land, the state owns the rights to underground minerals in South Africa and can grant permits for drilling without the consent of landowners. Pockets of natural gas are known to exist within shale rock thousands of meters below the Karoo’s surface. Shell believes that fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, will allow significant amounts of natural gas to be mined there. But the effect that the technique could have on the region’s scarce water resources, as well as soil quality, has created strong opposition among Karoo’s farmers and communities.
Shell is hoping to supply natural gas to power plants in South Africa, a country struggling to address growing energy needs. Most of South Africa’s electricity is generated through coal-fired power plants, which contribute around 80 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. The South African government is eager to curb its greenhouse gas emissions and the burning of natural gas emits half as much carbon as coal. Shell alone hopes to extract gas by fracking almost 100,000 kilometer2 in the Karoo, and other companies—including Falcon Oil & Gas and Bundu Gas & Oil Exploration—have also applied for permits.
Fracking works by creating extensive fractures in natural gas-latent shale deep underground through explosions in a well, bored to run horizontally at the shale layer. The layer is about 5,000 meters down in the Karoo. A mixture of water, chemicals, sand, and other particles is injected into the well at high pressure, forcing further cracking of the rock. The sand and particles become lodged in the cracks, wedging them open. Once the pressure is released and the liquids are removed, natural gas can escape through the cracks and be extracted through the well.
Fracking is a water-intensive process, using up to 25 million liters per well, and several wells can be drilled in the same spot. In response to concerns raised about the scarcity of water in the Karoo region, Shell has proposed trucking in seawater for their purposes. But this scenario is unlikely because of the chemicals included in the liquid mixture that fracking uses. “It’s too salty,” says Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea, an expert on fracking. “It does not work well with the other chemicals that have to be added to the water for the hydraulic fracturing process to work.” Saline wastewater from the process could also increase salinity of Karoo’s groundwater, making it unusable for irrigation or drinking.
South African attorney Derek Light is representing Karoo farmers and community members in legal action against Shell, Falcon, and Bundu. Light says, “fracking requires the use of dangerous chemicals, which are combined in a highly poisonous mix.” Fritz Bekker—Karoo farmer and environmental consultant hired by Derek Light—says, “The chemicals used during fracking in America have been positively linked to cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, asthma, Alzheimer’s, learning disorders and endocrine disrupting effects.” In the United States—where fracking was developed—oil and gas companies have not made the list of chemicals used in fracking public, calling it a trade secret.
“We simply do not understand enough about the aquifer systems in the Karoo,” says Ahee Coetsee, another Karoo farmer and a geohydrologist. “There are many and varied aquifer systems in the Karoo, some dating back 300 million years and older…and if the boreholes constructed are not 100 percent, there can be cross contamination between aquifer systems.”
Steel and concrete casing used in the wells is often not strong enough to withstand the pressure from fracking. The fracking fluid and natural gas leak through cracks in the casing into soils and aquifers. In addition, each well produces millions of tons of toxic wastewater that has to be purified before re-entering the environment.
According to New York Times, wastewater from fracking often absorbs radioactivity from underground minerals such as uranium, an element abundant in the Karoo. This could lead to radioactive contamination of the Karoo’s water and soils. And radiation could enter the food chain through fish and farming, causing cancer and other health problems for consumers.
In a push to improve U.S. energy independence in 2005, the Congress exempted fracking from federal environmental regulations and allowed natural gas companies to conceal the specific methods and chemicals used in mining. Several U.S. states, however, have since placed a moratorium on fracking as a result of the many environmental impacts reported by residents living near gas wells. France has also imposed a moratorium.
“Does Shell have any suggestions for a farmer, whose land value plummets or whose water is poisoned as a result of gas mining, in terms of how he will be able to support his family and workforce,” asked Jonathan Deal in a public meeting with industry representatives. Deal heads a citizen’s coalition, Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), opposed to fracking in the Karoo. Sheep farming is the mainstay of the region’s economy, with other types of agriculture in areas where irrigation is possible.
Shell has offered to compensate farmers who can prove financial losses as a direct result of its fracking operations. But Deal pointed out that “there are many cases where individual landowners in the U.S. who have claimed compensation for real damage from oil giants have been forced to fend for themselves –a very expensive burden that is opposed in high court until private persons run out of money. There is no reason to believe it will be any different here.”
How can developing economies, like South Africa’s, meet rising energy needs without relying on big energy companies who are hard to regulate?
To read more about agricultural issues in South Africa see: Making Change in Africa, Agriculture as a Concrete Solution: Cape Town’s Food Garden, Innovation of the Week: Taking the Classroom to the Field, and Innovation of the Week: Water Out of Thin Air.
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
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Posted on May 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm.