Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Karoo might give South Africa’s economy a big boost, but experts are dubious about whether the process will be executed correctly and whether the appropriate technology will be used.
“Technology has improved drastically over the last four years, but what is going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years?” asks University of the Free State (UFS) Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences associate professor Gideon Steyl.
He believes that, with promising technological developments, come significant risks.
“If we do not have the knowledge of what is going to come back at us in 20 years, we are creating a hazard for ourselves and I don’t want to wake a dormant dragon,” he says.
Steyl has a neutral point of view with regard to fracking. He does have concerns about the long-term effects of the process, but believes that, if proper risk-mitigation measures are put in place, he would support fracking.
However, he says, not enough research has been done in ensuring the long-term safety of the environment once fracking has been implemented.
“Even if it is implemented correctly in the short term, the technology itself has been available for less than ten years and the whole process has only been operational for about seven years,” he says.
However, Steyl realises that, although the long-term effects of fracking – once the impact of drilling and development has ceased – remain unknown, exploration for shale gas is still necessary in ascertaining the exact benefits of the process for South Africa.
Engineering News reported last month that South Africa’s final National Development Plan 2030, which was presented to President Jacob Zuma on August 15, states that even if economically recoverable resources are much lower than currently estimated, shale gas as a transitional fuel has the potential to contribute a very large proportion of South Africa’s electricity needs.
“For example, exploitation of a 24-trillion-cubic-foot resource will power about 20 GW of combined cycle gas turbines, generating about 130 000 GWh of electricity a year over a 20-year period. This is more than half of current electricity production,” the report states.
Further, Steyl cites Energy Minister Dipuo Peters, who said in May that the country “cannot allow a blessing to remain fallow”, which implies that if shale gas is a blessing, it must be pursued.
Steyl agrees, but suggests that exploration be undertaken one step at a time. “The Department of Energy needs to choose an area [in the Karoo] that it is willing to sacrifice for exploration and then allow development in that area alone.
No development outside that area should take place until everyone is 100% sure fracking technology will not be hazardous to the environment,” he says.
“If all the correct measures are in place and it becomes clear that fracking does not have a real impact on the environment, then I will say go on with development and proceed step by step.”
Steyl justifies his opinion that it is possible to choose an area in the Karoo as a testing ground: she says there are some places in the region that will not be adversely affected by fracking should the exploration lead to some unintended consequences, as they do not include any wildlife or productive farmland.
“An extensive monitoring programme should also be put in place to ensure that the medium- to long-term impact of devel- opment can be determined. This would include both shallow and deep borehole monitoring stations.”
Steyl adds that, if exploration, drilling and development are allowed in one small area for a minimum of ten years, fracking technology could develop and lead to more environment-friendly fracking processes.
Steyl and his colleague, UFS Institute of Groundwater Studies professor Gerrit van Tonder, fear that fracking might have a significant impact on groundwater in the Karoo.
The academics concur that the highest risk of groundwater pollution problems can be expected after the life of the gas well.
“It is only possible to mine a maximum of 20% shale gas with horizontal borders,” says Van Tonder, which means that, after the closure of the well, there is still 80% methane left in the fracked gas reservoir.
“Over time, the methane and salty water will replenish the reservoir and the pressure will rise again, eventually reaching prefracked conditions,” he explains.
Van Tonder also emphasises that man-made structures have a specific life expectancy, which implies that, sooner or later, the methane and the salty water will flow upward, polluting freshwater aquifers.
Last year, Van Tonder told famers that they did not have to be concerned about water pollution as a result of fracking. New information, however, has prompted him to withdraw his comments.
“I now know there is a very good chance that groundwater in the Karoo could be polluted as a result of fracking,” he says, adding that this type of pollution will, in fact, occur in any geological basin – not just the Karoo.
“There are a vast number of pathways along which water can flow upwards. It can, therefore, carry a toxic cocktail of the chemi- cals used in fracking to freshwater aquifers nearer the surface,” says Van Tonder.
He adds that this could have devastating consequences for farmers.
Steyl is also concerned about the environmental impact of fracking. He explains that produced water, a consequence of gas development, has a high salt content and, while not all salts are harmful to the envi- ronment, it is nevertheless imperative that the salt concentration must be dealt with as soon as it approaches the surface.
“Produced water needs either to be purified or disposed of in a safe, environment- friendly way,” he says, adding that this water is not a by-product of fracking but rather comes from the actual ground formation, which is affected during the fracking process – ancient saline water, which has absorbed salts over time, is mobilised during the process and then moves up to the surface. It has to be dealt with to avoid water pollution.
However, the safe disposal of additional salts is energy-intensive, says Steyl, noting that gas needs to be burned if this cleaning method is used. He adds that the alternative, which involves diluting the solution, is not a likely option for South Africa, as there is not enough water to sustain this method of purification.
Steyl and Van Tonder agree that more research on the process of purifying water is needed, which can only be conducted by drilling boreholes into a test area in the Karoo.
“We don’t even know if there is enough gas in the basin,” says Van Tonder, who explains that the moratorium on fracking in South Africa is hindering research and exploration on the effects of fracking, as well as the shale gas exploration process itself.
Is Fracking Needed at This Point?
“One can, in fact, explore shale gas without fracking. That, for me, is currently the best option for South Africa,” he adds.
With core drilling, gas companies can estimate the amount of gas contained in the organic shale with great accuracy, he explains. “The only reason for fracking – that is, the one-day process of cracking the shale under large pressure – is to measure the rate at which the released trapped gas flows towards the gas borehole.”
Van Tonder suggests that, while fracking should remain banned for now, the moratorium on boreholes and core drillings should be lifted, which will, at least, reveal the amount of shale gas available in the Karoo.
He points out that France has 62 companies exploring its land for shale gas and empha- sises that it is being done without fracking. He believes this needs to be implemented in South Africa, as there is no other way of knowing the true benefits of the shale gas that the Karoo may have to offer.
Van Tonder expects the moratorium to be lifted within the month – an action that Parliament must decide on. Whether this will include fracking, as well as boreholes and drilling, or just the latter, remains to be seen.
There are fears, however, that fracking proponents may forge ahead with the process without slowing down to consider the long-term consequences.
There is a common misconception that gas exploration companies care less about the environment than about the benefits of exploiting land for gas, says Steyl, who believes this could not be further from the truth.
“I’m fairly certain that any one of these exploration companies wishes it could ensure that it has no significant impact on the environment. “People believe gas companies are just out there to drill, but, remember, they want to drill in this area for the next 100 years, so why would they want to spoil their own chances of long-term exploration and development?”
Nevertheless, Steyl acknowledges some damage will be inevitable. “The trick now is to find a method that will cause the least amount of damage,” he says.
“Long-term issues will arise regardless. However, I don’t want to see brownfield and industrial sites all over the Karoo. I want to see selected areas being developed.”
Steyl believes gas companies also care about the visual impact of fracking and that they will take care to camouflage their installations.
Despite the environmental concerns, Steyl believes that fracking could be economically feasible for South Africa, assuming the gas price does not drop too low.
“This is another big ‘if’ because shale gas comes from a secondary source and several other resources are needed to extract it. “The gas price, therefore, needs to maintain a certain level; otherwise, the industry will not be a viable one, even if the Mineral Resources Minister approves fracking in the Karoo.”
Steyl highlights how the gas price has affected companies in the US, with larger com- panies buying out the smaller operators that had no reserves to sustain themselves.
Moreover, fracking has affected the local population in the US, as those with a gas reserve on their properties receive hefty pay cheques each year, which has resulted in a drastic shift of upward mobility among these close communities.
Steyl points out that, in South Africa, this could also become a significant social issue that would need consideration.