In the fracking cross-fire

Fracking in the Karoo has been the subject of heated debate but few people know that Prince Albert in the Klein Karoo is also a potential site for fracking. While providing access to much-needed energy and economic resources, fracking will also change the pristine natural environment and have an impact that will be felt generations down the line.

WORDS Francini van Staden

In a time of global energy insecurity, gas trapped within deep and hard to reach shale formations, which are common in the Karoo, has sparked global interest. There is heated debate over the sustainability of fracking, in which hydraulic fracturing blasts shale rocks with high volumes of water, sand and chemicals at extreme pressure to release gas trapped inside. A world ravenous for energy, oil-dependent politics and increasing pressure to find alternative energy sources have seen oil and gas multinational companies scramble for recently discovered shale gas fields. And that is how Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil & Gas and Bundu Oil & Gas came to be central to Prince Albert’s battle with fracking. Potential fracking sites have been earmarked in the region, although there are no active fracking applications in place, for now.

Karoo shale gas
Essentially a fossil fuel, the Karoo’s shale gas formed through thermal decomposition of organic matter millions of years ago. Exactly how much shale gas is locked beneath the Karoo’s surface remains a guess. In total, South Africa’s shale gas resource is estimated at 485 trillion cubic feet (tcf), of which the greatest volume is found in the Great Karoo. While the exact scope of this resource can only be confirmed by extensive exploration, it is believed the resource could be very large1. The potential magnitude of the resource becomes apparent when compared to the PetroSA gas-to-liquids project in Mossel Bay: a resource quantity of 1 tcf was considered feasible to launch the Mossgas project. But the Karoo’s shale gas is not readily available for the taking – scientists have warned that as much as 80% of shale gas could remain out of reach due to technical limitations.

Oil and gas companies believe shale gas is a potential solution to the country’s energy needs and are trying to sway political and public decisions. On the other hand, leading and independent scientists warn hydraulic fracturing is risky and could permanently scar the natural environment, with dire results for the region’s people.

Key impacts for Prince Albert
Prince Albert is one of only a few municipal regions in the country where close to 98% of the district is still in its natural state. It may be a water-deprived landscape, but it is home to the unique Nama-Karoo and Succulent Karoo biomes. Its geological formations have excited geologists and palaeontologists for decades, offering a glimpse of life on the Earth eons ago.

Water pollution
A single fracking well requires 20 million litres of water2. This is about the amount of water Beaufort-West needs to get by for two days. But for Professor Gerrit van Tonder, South Africa’s leading groundwater scientist, fracking’s water requirements is of lesser concern. “I am not worried about the amount of water needed. This water will most likely be available from the Dwyka Group,” he says. The Dwyka Group is an enormous groundwater reservoir originating from ancient glaciers. The water is deep, saline and most likely radioactive, rendering it unsuitable for potable use.

The gas resource lies in the Ecca Group, below the large Dwyka Group reservoir. It is impossible to reach the gas without fracturing through the Dwyka Group. Fracking uses a fluid chemical mix to crack shale artificially, including benzene or lead, kerosene, naphthalene and hundreds of other highly toxic and deadly chemicals.

A geological feature specific to the Klein Karoo – dolerite dykes and intrusions – creates pathways for groundwater to flow upwards. “The greatest risk is that the highly contaminated water will move upward from deep below, migrating vertically to shallow groundwater aquifers and to freshwater sources. This scenario is already observed in the Karoo. Soekor’s 1960 exploration boreholes are showing artesian well behaviour, with water and gas from deep surfaces pushing upwards,” says Gerrit.

Given the number of fracking sites planned, with each covering 1 000 ha underground, water pollution could affect the entire region, which is dependent on these shallow aquifers for daily survival.

Climate change
Another potentially significant impact is gas emissions from fracking vents. Oil and gas companies have promised boreholes will be sealed off to avoid gas emissions, but Gerrit says shale boreholes cannot be sealed off completely and will leak. In the United States, 10% of shale boreholes leaked gas within their first 10 years of operation, he says, adding: “What will happen in 30 or 40 years’ time?” The gases expected to escape from the boreholes include methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides – all greenhouse gases that could contribute further to climate change.

Local ecology
Botanist, restoration ecologist and Prince Albert resident Dr Sue Milton-Dean says there are several local ecological impacts associated with fracking. Vegetation will be stripped, and sensitive plants and animals with small distribution ranges will be threatened.

Of even greater concern is the large quantity of clean silica sand needed to hold the fractures open. Since sand needs to be mined as close to the fracking site as possible, small sand mines are likely to mushroom around Prince Albert, which will have a long-term impact on Prince Albert’s ecology.

Well-known for her groundbreaking research in Karoo vegetation restoration, Sue believes fracking and associated infrastructure will leave permanent scars on the landscape. Rocks removed from the area will mean small animals and even plants will lose their shelter from the blazing Karoo sun. Indirect impacts include increasing tooth wear in herbivores such as antelope, sheep and hares as heavy vehicle movement will result in thick layers of dust covering plants.

What the local authorities say
The Prince Albert Municipality is taking a cautious approach, according to municipal manager Heinrich Metler. “We understand there will be negative impacts, but it is too early for the Prince Albert Municipality to take a formal standpoint for or against hydraulic fracturing,” he says.

While environmental conservation is a priority, the municipality is clear that it will need to consider local socio-economic circumstances.

“The local Prince Albert community is among the poorest in South Africa, what could job creation mean for us?” asks Heinrich.

Councillor Annelie Rabie says if fracking creates intellectual job opportunities, Prince Albert Municipality would be obliged to not reject fracking before careful evaluations are done.

“It is an enormous dilemma… we are extremely uncertain about how fracking will impact the Prince Albert region.”

South Africa has reason to consider fracking; from an international commitment to lower CO2 emissions to socio-economic underdevelopment, potential gas exports and access to electricity for all households. But what gas multinationals and the authorities are hesitant to talk about is the true cost of fracking – the long-term and irreversible impact for the Karoo and its people. It may be too early for local decision-makers to say exactly how fracking will affect Prince Albert, but leading scientists have little doubt – if fracking is allowed, the peaceful plains of the Klein Karoo will become a hostile environment, scarred by the battle for energy.

1&2 Report on the Investigation of Hydraulic Fracturing in the Karoo Basin of South Africa (2012). Department of Minerals Resources, Republic of South Africa.