Three oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil & Gas, and Bundu Oil & Gas, see massive opportunities in the exploration of natural gas trapped in the underground shale formations in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in South Africa. The Karoo is a sparsely populated area of 300 000 people. Shell recently applied for exploration licences for an area of 90 000 square kilometres – roughly three times the size of Lesotho. In the face of resistance by local communities, the government has placed a temporary moratorium on fracking, pending impact assessments. In this article, Jonathan Deal, chairperson of Treasure Karoo Action Group, sets out the arguments against Shell’s hard sell for fracking. Local communities in the Karoo are angry and concerned. Angry because they have no say about what happens to the minerals below their land. And seriously concerned because of the damaging environmental effects of shale gas exploitation.
Shell is full of grand plans for South Africa. And the way that Mr Jan-Willem Eggink of Shell puts it across makes it sound as if the company is actually just a large philanthropic organisation. ‘Shale gas mining will be the answer to SA’s energy needs and create lots of jobs,’ he says. But in eight months of this year I’ve heard nothing new that could cause any reasonable-thinking person to want fracking in this country. Even while our government has imposed and extended a moratorium on fracking with a view to investigating the technology, Shell are intensifying their lobbying of business, community and government from behind their billion-rand exploration budget.
But there are no answers to our questions. Where will you find the water? How do you know that you can drill and frack in the Karoo without polluting precious underground water? Where will you dispose of toxic and radioactive fracking fluid? How will roads and towns cope with literally thousands of truck trips in areas where there is presently very little traffic? How long does your gas last before the wells are dried up and you move away? What about the impact on tourism in an area and country where tourism is a growing source of revenue? What about farming operations that will be affected by dust, light and noise? What about the airborne and waterborne risks to the health of our communities? How do you intend to leave the Karoo, as you claim, ‘better than you found it’?
Shell asserts that shale gas is a much better option than coal – but they don’t talk about all of the extra CO2 emissions that are produced when drilling, fracking, extracting, flaring, piping, refining and distributing gas. They don’t talk about the fact that when CO2 on drill sites combines with methane it forms ozone – and how dangerous ozone is to humans. No, all they can talk about is the advantages from their viewpoint – probably much the same as they would have said in Nigeria if the Nigerian activists were able to stand up without being executed by their own government.
Renewables? ‘No,’ says Shell, ‘we are not in that business.’ And anyway, ‘solar takes too long and it can’t supply the base load’, they add. But to come back to jobs – they tell the hopeful unemployed of this country that jobs will be there for the picking – but those people don’t understand that the jobs – few and short – will be ten years in the coming.
We’ve got the fifth biggest gas reserves in the world. Really? Says who? The United States Geological Survey (USGS). But their first ‘estimate’ was 1000 tcf (trillion cubic feet). Now it’s 485 tcf. How come? What does our own petroleum agency (PASA) say? 5 tcf. That’s a variance of 90 times. Meanwhile in the United States, according to an August 24 report in the Pittsburgh Tribune, government geologists, updating previous assessments, have slashed their estimation of undiscovered Marcellus shale gas reserves by nearly 80%. Their first estimates were 410 tcf, and these have now been reduced to 84 tcf. An 80% reduction? In an area where they have observed, measured, recorded and sampled for years. If they can’t get it right in America, how can they expect us to believe that they can get it right in South Africa?
‘Pollution incidents in fracking are caused by smaller, less professional companies’ (not global standard setters like Shell), they say. What about Shell in the Marcellus shale area in the US? Between 19 January and March 2011, they were cited for a variety of environmental violations, which included pollution of waters (streams and rivers) and drilling a gas well without a permit.
‘If we don’t do it, you’ll have smaller, less professional companies fracking in SA,’ they warn. No, Shell. You have underestimated the spirit of South Africans. We will not stand by and watch you or any other oil and gas company worm your fracking way into South Africa.
Jonathan Deal is the Chairman of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, a non-profit organisation opposed to the introduction and licensing of fracking in South Africa in the absence of conclusive proof that fracking is the only and the best answer to our energy and employment needs.