Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Industry funded watchdog on Fracking will simply not work

Industry funded watchdog on Fracking will simply not work

By Jonathan Deal,

Treasure Karoo Action Group

TKAG chairman, Jonathan Deal responds to a proposition that Shell fund an independent monitoring group to act as a watchdog over fracking

The questions posed by Prof. De Witt’s paper[1] are in the circumstances reasonable and rational. The framework within which the facts are presented is well researched, capturing the nexus of a debate between those who pin their hopes on shale gas mining and those who don’t.

The idea that a completely independent body, paid for by industry, be appointed to regulate the industry will not work. Any group of people funded by a profit-making institution cannot escape a degree of loyalty and bias in favour of their funders. Consider the inherent conflict of interest experienced by our own Petroleum Agency (PASA) and Department of Minerals (DMR) who are in the position of having to encourage exploitation of our mineral resources and also adjudicate on the licensing process.

A workable modification of professor De Witt’s idea, which may have merit would be for the proposed body to be funded by government and not have any industry connection whatsoever. The suggestion, however, is ahead of itself in the current scenario because it bypasses larger and unresolved issues running through the debate. These well-documented points militate against the very concept of extraction of the shale gas in the absence of more facts.

The argument is far bigger than simplistically saying that if the gas is there, we must mine it because the gas will create energy capacity and the mining will create work. The basis of my argument against shale gas exploration at this time, is a complete lack of thorough research of the technology. When juxtaposed against the broad environment in South Africa, such research would clarify positive or negative aspects arising from shale gas mining and must afford attention to the potential of solar and wind power – not only to generate energy but as an alternative to create sustainable and non-polluting jobs.

In essence, my point is that with the information at hand, and given the international bad reputation of the technology, our country has not conducted a thorough strategic environmental assessment (SEA) of the benefits and costs of fracking in South Africa. It follows that an assessment of this nature would be of no use until and unless it includes every relevant environment, and, by implication, the associated government departments and relevant ngo’s together with the hundreds and thousands of people that they represent. It is trite to say that despite the unusual press enjoyed by fracking, many people, even those in towns who have access to media and internet are unaware of the term (fracking), and most of those who are aware, regard the problem as ‘something to do with the Karoo’.

If this is the benchmark in suburbia, we can prove that farm workers, that group most dependent on clean water and a safe, healthy environment, who are least able to pack up and move away, are in fact the least informed about something that will have a marked impact on their lives.

It is inter alia, these questions that the scientists, economists, oil companies, and government appear to be overlooking.

Consider, in this context, some of the better known points for and against fracking, which it is submitted lend weight to the call for a more thorough investigation before we even consider licencing exploration in any form.

Shale gas burns cleaner. Yes it does. But Jan-Willem Eggink of Shell is on record in Johannesburg on July 19th as stating that his company cannot measure, nor contain fugitive gas emissions during the drilling, fracking, extraction, flaring and piping process. These gasses when combined with the Co2 emissions in a fracking operation form lethal ozone. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than the emissions from coal-fired plants.

Fairly credible reports have recently emerged that point to a far higher contribution to ghg from shale gas mining than the industry would have us believe. Naturally, the oil and gas lobby has the money to commission voluminous reports and opinions trashing opposing papers, but the fact remains that they damage their case by not counting these emissions. And so, the gap between extracted and burned methane and the emissions from coal may be narrower than the figures quoted by Shell et al – and perhaps then not a reason to rush headlong into the production of gas turbines.

De Witt refers to the ability of shale gas to assist with the 2015 UN Millennium Development goal of poverty reduction. This underscores the need for a SEA to consider and determine:

· How many local jobs will actually be created by fracking? (Prof Philip Lloyd makes the nonsensical claim of employment on a scale never before seen in South Africa);

· How long will those jobs last?

· What health effects will be experienced by workers exposed to chemicals and emissions in a fracking operation?

· How many actual jobs will be interrupted and lost due to fracking? – in farming and agriculture, tourism and the satellite industries dependent on those activities;

· The impact of fracking hundreds of thousands of wells on the country’s rural development program and land tenure act;

· The negative downward impact (already a fact) on land prices in an area comprising 52% of the Karoo and 18% of our country – who will buy a Karoo farm at present – and for the next nine years during which the applicants can exercise their right to explore? And who will buy a farm that has been fracked knowing the risk that as cement corrodes and steel rusts, the toxins released in fracking can find their way into the irreplaceable underground water?

· By Shell’s own figures 400 producing wells in Wyoming are supervised by only 66 Shell employees.

· Recent reports indicate that shale gas wells last for an average period from 12 to 90 months. This may provide good returns for operators but hardly makes a case for sustainable income and employment.

· The Global Climate Network in March 2010 released a report on South Africa, amongst other countries and projected 145000 new jobs in SA by 2020 if we pursued renewable energy as a priority. Even if this figure is half of that – the jobs are sustainable and non-polluting.

So shale gas mining may not the panacea for poverty in South Africa.

The point is made, or at least there is speculation about the shale gas reserves under the Karoo. Two sources, amongst others, the US Geological Survey and the International Energy Agency first floated figures of 1000tcf (trillion cubic feet). Their latest estimates (now less than half), widely proclaimed by Prof Philip Lloyd and Shell are in the order of 450 to 480tcf, and are 90 times more than the estimates of PASA’s geologist, Ms. Jennifer Marot. Meanwhile, Dr. Billy De Klerk, a geohydrologist and paleontologist presented a paper in Grahamstown during a debate on fracking, which made a strong case for there being very much less than any of these estimates. And of ten core samples from Soekor in the 1960’s, only three showed faint traces of shale gas (Shell’s figures).

There may be much ado about nothing.

Water, of course, is probably the central issue. Shell doesn’t know where they will find it. Even were they able to extract and use water from deep saline aquifers, they would still have to drill through the underground water sources of the Karoo. Their own engineers have admitted that the Karoo is criss-crossed by dolerite sills and dykes – not an environment that stimulates easy drilling.

Once the water (if obtained from underground) has been used as fracking fluid, it contains not only the chemicals that the drillers add to it, but almost certainly technologically-enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM). Where will this be disposed of? Into rivers, quarries, the sea, evaporated into our air to return as acid rain or perhaps sprayed on to our roads as in the US? Certainly, the wastewater facilities in Pennsylvania have refused to accept any more frackwater – how then do we imagine that our own municipal plants will have the technology and management expertise to deal with this?

Our transport and road infrastructure

If not drawn from underground, the water will presumably come from the sea or the Orange River. Has anybody done the sums of exactly how many trucks are needed to lubricate one well at 20 million litres per frack? And what that volume of trucks will do to our already crumbling road network. This discounts the fragile dirt roads in the Karoo and the vast dust clouds that follow even one truck on the powdery surface.

Although much of the focus is on what happens underground, there is a staggering amount of activity above ground. Figures from the Pennsylvania Dept of Environment show 1667 truckloads to service one well (there are potentially 8 – 12 wells on one pad). Add to this, the noise, dust, gas emissions and light pollution 24 hours a day, and consider the effects on a uniquely biodiverse region – a surface that cannot be rehabilitated and as Shell claims ‘left better than it was found.’

Regulation and law enforcement are also not an area in which South Africa has great capacity. And if the Americans are battling to police the drillers how is it planned that South Africa will regulate the industry in the absence of applicable laws and enforcement capability. This point is supported by the thorough mining mess in Gauteng and Mpumalanga and begs the question – even if we can regulate, monitor and enforce, who will pay for this? The costs of training, vehicles, buildings, communication, burden on courts and municipalities?

In the interests of brevity, my comment must stop here, with a concluding statement.

As an environmentalist I am frequently accused by proponents of fracking of being ‘emotional.’ My assertion is that there is a difference between emotional and committed. TKAG is also well informed. Prof. De Witt on national radio stated that ‘No one in their right mind would trust Shell to police their own operation’ and explained this by referring to the distortion of data by the oil and gas industry. I agree. And so does the Advertising Standards Authority.

It is our position, as an ngo, representative of interested and affected parties and as a campaigner for the rights of many people who know nothing of fracking, that South Africa has a long way to go before it can be conclusively proved that fracking is the only – and best option to sustainably supply South Africa’s energy needs and create work. Until these questions are answered, there is no justification to issue any form of exploration licence.

[1] DE Wit MJ. The great shale debate in the Karoo, S AFR J Sci. 2011;107(7/8), Art. 791


  1. Will the message ever get through to Shell and the other proponents of fracking that we will never accept the destruction of the Karoo.
    Why should we believe their spin anyway, especially since they were required to retract the lies in their newspaper advert.
    I know what it means to be accused of being "emotional", but when something is worth preserving you can't help but get emotional. I prefer to think of it as being "passionate" - there is nothing wrong with that.
    The trend these days is to go through the motions of keeping it "legal" - but "legal" does not make it right.

  2. Keep up the good work. This affects all South Africans no matter where we live. This is bigger than any one grouping. Big Oil should know they cannot act with the arrogant impunity they have used up to now.
    Here is a story of another community in the US taking a stand against corporate greed and ignorance.