The South African government lifted the moratorium on fracking on 7 September, opening the way for exploration of what’s been sold as a massive shale gas resource beneath the beautiful, sparsely populated Great Karoo.
Fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) is a form of high-pressure drilling into underground sha le formations up to six km deep. The drills contain fracking liquid, a cocktail of water, some sand (whose grains will force open the shale and release the gas) and one percent of toxic chemicals. The drilling starts vertically but ends up being horizontal. The gas will be released underground and piped to the surface using the drilling equipment. Most of the fracking is expected to occur in the Great Karoo, but oil companies have applied to explore over 20% of the country’s surface area.
The lifting of the moratorium does not mean that fracking will occur straight away. For one thing, the government is nervous of using fracking technology to explore for shale gas. For another, it needs time to fix the currently inadequate institutions that will regulate the industry. So, it argues, the next six to 12 months will be spent addressing these questions before any fracking is allowed.
Why is this technology problematic? Firstly it uses around 22 million litres of fresh water per frack, water which South Africa does not have. There is a risk that the casing of the wells could erode, allowing the fracking liquid to contaminate fresh groundwater resources. Even when the well casing holds, some of the toxic fracking liquid remains underground and could migrate upwards to pollute groundwater. The toxic waste, some of which will exit the well, will have to be cautiously managed. At present, poor provinces like the Eastern Cape struggle even to provide basic facilities to manage domestic and industrial waste.
Ninety-four percent of Karoo municipalities and thousands of farms rely on groundwater for their survival. Contaminate this water, and farms will close, while farmworkers will be laid off (and lose their housing too).
The massive delivery of water, sand and chemicals involves 1,500 truckloads per well, all trying to negotiate the gravel roads of the region. This will cause massive air pollution, affecting the quality of the Karoo’s farm produce and discouraging tourism.
The relatively few jobs created by fracking (around 20 per well) will mostly go to experienced workers from outside the region, especially during the exploration phase, lasting nine years. Since each well can only be fracked up to eight times, the industry will extract what it can, then move on, causing boom-and-bust economics at local level. Even if sufficient shale gas is found, the fracking will only last between 15 and 20 years — less if the price of gas continues to fall. By then the character of the Karoo will be lost as the countryside is blighted by thousands of gas wells.
Regulation of fracking falls under our mining laws, which are weak on environmental controls. The regulatory body charged with overseeing the safe exploration and production of shale gas is the Petroleum Agency, which is mainly responsible for promoting oil and gas.
As debate over injecting untold trillions of litres of toxic fluid into the Karoo has raged, the oil companies lined up to do the exploration have shown themselves to be masters of spin. Last year, the Advertising Complaints Commission ruled one advertising campaign by Shell was misleading and the company was forced to withdraw it.
But the National Planning Commission buys into the rhetoric of the oil companies, believing that the resource needs to be exploited in an energy-scarce South Africa. The NPC overlooks the problem that shale gas is a fossil fuel, contributing – according to the science – 20% more greenhouse emissions than coal in the short term. Instead of moving South Africa off its addiction to fossil fuel, and stimulating much-needed investment in renewable energies, the NPC is gung-ho about fracking. Even Sasol (South Africa’s second largest polluter) thinks otherwise, and has cancelled its intention to frack. It reasons that natural gas from Mozambique and Tanzania is easier to extract, is already on tap, and is more cost-effective to import.
The amount of shale gas beneath the Karoo is uncertain, currently unknown, and will take at least a decade to mine. The lifting of the moratorium was not based on a scientific assessment of the likely reserve, but one effected under pressure from the oil industry.
Does anyone give a damn about the future of the Karoo?
The Karoo Development Conference which took place in the hall of the Dutch Reform Moederkerk in Beaufort West between 16-18 October had a debate on fracking as a centrepiece of the agenda. The issue is central to the livelihoods of a big chunk of the region’s inhabitants: farmers, farm workers, the tourism sector, conservation bodies, astronomical projects, archaeologists and heritage practitioners. All joined in expressing their misgivings about the industry’s potential impacts and about how little readiness there was at local, provincial and national levels. The spectrum of concern gave the lie to the myth that the anti-fracking interests are mainly led and funded by rich white landowners.
The conference identified the need for more research, combining government, academics and local inhabitants. The central question was whether fracking would make the local economy more vulnerable or more resilient to contemporary challenges.
The Karoo region straddles Eastern, Northern and Western Cape and the Free State. It has its own identity, shared across all four provinces, which reflects in the culture, as well as in local products like Karoo lamb. Its low population density has meant that in development terms, it is marginalised by each province, facing problems of health, education, jobs and social equality.Will fracking intensify these problems? Local people are unlikely to benefit significantly from the product. It will be extracted by foreign companies, exported from the Karoo to the large national markets, and is unlikely to create many jobs or raise local incomes sustainably. The Karoo will face its own version of the resource curse, with the real beneficiaries of the resource will reside elsewhere.
Real development requires leaving the ‘oil in the soil’. But if the decision not to extract shale gas is made, there will still be a pressing need for a development path to lead the Karoo out of its poverty and inequality. Perhaps the shale gas debate will help us to take more serious responsibility for this question.
David Fig researches and writes about environment and energy questions. His work on fracking was sponsored by the Taco Kuiper Fund for Investigative Journalism.