The controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – of the Karoo took centre stage at the Claremont civic centre last week when experts warned that irreparable damage would be caused to the region if exploration licences were granted to energy companies.
The meeting on Friday night, February 12, chaired by Collaborative Archive of South African Biodiversity (CASABIO) chief executive Dr David Gwynne-Evans, was aimed at providing information to the public ahead of the deadline for comment on Dutch energy giant Shell’s environmental management plan (EMP) for the region.
Fracking involves a vertical well that is drilled to a depth of between 2 000m and 6 000m, after which the drilling bore turns to drill horizontally for a few thousand metres.
A mixture of 99 to 99.5 percent water and sand, along with 0.5 to 1 percent chemicals, is pumped under high pressure into the well. The gas is released once the shale is fractured.
Surrounded by posters and placards decrying the practice, delegates heard about the dangers of fracking and how the Karoo was ill-equipped to deal with Shell’s exploration concessions, which amounted to a 90 000km area.
Political economist and environmental sociologist Dr David Fig, of the UCT, told the audience that it was important for them to comment on the EMP as it was indication Shell was still interested in the region, despite several recent developments that suggested otherwise.
“At the moment, there is a feeling that Shell is not as interested as it once was. It has withdrawn its fracking team back to the Netherlands, and I was also told by Shell South Africa that at the current oil price it was not viable to explore for gas in the Karoo,” Dr Fig said.
“Furthermore, Shell has been reducing its projects worldwide, while the company has also made a move on gas exploration in Brazil.
“However, this move on the EMP definitely shows it is still interested.”
One of the biggest concerns raised was the water situation in the Karoo, and how Shell and others hoped to utilise the precious resource essential to the fracking process.
“None of the companies who have expressed interested in the Karoo (Falcon Oil & Gas and Australian concern Bundu have also done so) have ever stated where they are going to get water from,” Dr Fig said.
According to World Wide Fund for Nature researcher Tjasa Bole-Rentel, another of the experts who addressed the meeting, a single well requires between 10 and 20 million litres of water in order to be fractured.
“You should consider that the Shell area would be dotted with thousands of wells.
“In addition, in the United States and other countries where fracking occurs, it is commonplace for wells to be refractured, which can triple the water usage,” Ms Bole-Rentel said.
“Then consider that in the Karoo there is only three percent surface water available, and the groundwater supplies are even more limited.
“Exploration companies are starting to use their own waste water, called flow back, but even when using 90 percent waste water, there is still a lot of fresh water that is needed. And everyone knows the Karoo is dry.”
Well-known environmental journalist David Le Page said the public should ask themselves what kind of real value these energy companies were bringing to the country.
“I think we need to look at the long-term effects. Gas is often offered as a solution, but the problem is that if you look at the production cycle.
“Methane, which is released by fracking, is a greenhouse warming gas. When you add it all up, it ultimately is similar to the effects of burning coal,” Mr Le Page said.
Dr Gwynne-Evans elaborated by saying methane was actually 24 times worse than greenhouse emissions.
“In America, entire communities have been transformed because of fracking activity. There has to be activism, otherwise we will be trodden over,” he said.
“We have to keep up sustainable pressure on these companies, by coordinating various actions like forming WhatsApp groups and holding meetings such as this one.”
Constantia resident and anti-fracking campaigner Marilyn Lilley said it was “essential” that people took the time to comment on the EMP “before Shell was in a strong legal position” to act on its intentions.
“In Cape Town, we are in a very strong position to do something before it’s too late. In the Karoo, the affected parties are far away from each other and cellphone and internet reception are unreliable. Because we are able to communicate better, we can mobilise easier.
“We should take advantage of our location to assist,” Ms Lilley said.