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Oct 19, 2012

Parties divided on shale gas exploration, fracking

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Nonprofit organisation Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) chairperson Jonathan Deal believes oil and gas company Shell has not provided any viable proof to support claims that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) will improve South Africa’s energy security, create jobs and assist in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Commenting on the results of an opinion survey released earlier this year by research-based company Ipsos Markinor, which was commissioned and paid for by Shell, and which stated that about 80% of South Africans support fracking, Deal notes that the questions asked in the survey have not been revealed.

“Why would these questions be kept secret if Shell was open and transparent? Would 80% of South Africans have agreed to fracking had they been aware that it is banned in countries such as France?” he asks.

Further, he points out that another report, conducted by economic consultancy Econometrix, also commissioned by Shell and released in February, stated that, should shale gas exploration lead to gas finds of 20-trillion cubic feet (tcf), it would create about 300 000 jobs. Gas finds of 50 tcf would create about 700 000 jobs.

“The issue with this survey is that it only accounted for the positive benefits of allowing the establishment of a shale gas industry in South Africa.

“The possibilities of tourism and agricultural disruption, health problems from chemical exposure, water pollution, as well as transport and infrastructure damage, resulting from fracking operations, were not taken into account,” Deal states.

However, Shell South Africa GM for upstream operations Jan Willem Eggink maintains that, should commercial shale gas production become a reality in the Karoo, it will result in many benefits, such as job creation and economic growth, for South Africans.

He adds that Shell believes shale gas exploration can be done in an environment-friendly way.

“While Shell could never guarantee that an incident, such as gas entering water sources, will not occur, it can guarantee high operating standards,” he emphasises.

Eggink further states that shale gas exploration activities will not affect the Karoo as a tourist destination or negatively impact on its agriculture industry. “A shale gas industry will be developed in a small area of the Karoo – only in 1% of the total area where we are applying for the licences.”

In about 25 years, after drilling has taken place and gas has been commercially produced, Shell will move its operations to another small area of the Karoo and the previous drilling sites will be rehabilitated.

“Shell will do everything possible to ensure the areas are left in the state in which we found them.”

Eggink explains that the areas where gas will be developed will be 30 km long and 30 km wide, amounting to a surface of 60 to 70 soccer pitches, with about 32 wells each.

He stresses that Shell will not move its exploration activities to other parts of South Africa, as is claimed by the opposition.

“We believe the highest potential for shale gas is in the areas we applied for [the Karoo] and we see little prospectiveness for shale gas in other areas in South Africa.”

Moratorium

Meanwhile, Shell states that while government lifted the moratorium on shale gas exploration last month, an environmental-impact assessment (EIA) still has to be completed before shale gas exploration will be allowed to proceed in the Karoo.

The environmental, social and health impact assessment Shell will undertake, needs to be approved by the Department of Environmental Affairs before Shell is allowed to even drill the first well.

Further, he says that, while the media portrays hydraulic fracturing as a new phenomenon, it has been in existence since 1974, adding that the technology has continuously progressed and improved.

“In the US, more than one-million wells have been hydraulically fractured,” Eggink points out.

However, TKAG states that major problems are emerging in the US, owing to fracking. “Exposure to fracking chemicals has been found to be extremely hazardous,” states Deal.

In one case, reported on by a US government watchdog organisation in 2008, a Colorado nurse nearly died of organ failure after being exposed to a worker who had been soaked in fracking liquids.

Eggink, however, says the chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing by Shell will not pose health risks to the people in the Karoo, as the company will ensure compliance with health and safety legislation.

He further emphasises that Shell will implement the highest operating standards during drilling and fracking procedures. “Before a well is drilled, a steel casing tube is put in place and cemented to the rock and then a pressure test is performed,” he explains.

“Regular pressure tests can ensure that incidents, such as gas flowing outside of the casing, do not occur,” he adds.

Allegations
However, those opposed to fracking say yhe history of drilling for oil in Nigeria does little to support this statement.

“Parts of Nigeria are like a wasteland because of the continuous oil drilling,” states Deal, adding that Shell has paid settlements to the families of eight Nigerian activists who brought a claim against Shell, after the activists were executed by the Nigerian government.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported in June 2009 that Shell agreed to pay $15.5-million to the families of environmental activists in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region, including that of author Ken Saro-Wiwa, as part of the out-of-court settlement mediated in New York.

The families alleged that Shell had provided arms for the Nigerian government to repress the Ogoni people, who lived in the areas where Shell was operating.

Shell, however, has always maintained that the allegations of its involvement were false and that it had done everything possible to persuade the Nigerian government to grant clemency to those who had been executed.

In addition, the Jurist publication, supported by the University of Pittsburgh, reported in March that 35 Nigerian villages brought a suit against Shell in a London court, alleging that the company’s slow response in cleaning up two oil spills in a neighbouring river ruined their livelihoods.

In the lawsuit, the village community members claimed that Shell was responsible for unspecified damages to the villages, which relied on the river for drinking water and farming.

“It is important to remember that oil drilling and shale gas production are two completely different procedures,” Eggink points out, adding that continued contamination in Nigeria results from continuous theft and sabotage by locals, who have started a small production industry with illegal refineries.

Further, he notes that Shell's clean-up process was successful in 2009.

TKAG also rebuked Shell for stating that it was not aware of any incidences where hydraulic fracturing had caused water pollution.

The organisation claims to have documents which indicate that Shell supplied fresh drinking water to a family in Williams Port, Pennsylvania, in June last year. The family later claimed their drinking water had been contaminated by Shell’s nearby fracking operation.

Eggink, however, states that Shell was supplying the family with fresh drinking water only out of courtesy and that no hydraulic fracturing activities had taken place near the family’s farm when the claims were made.

“The US Office of Environment and Energy concluded that Shell was not responsible for the water contamination,” he points out.

Further, Deal alleges that, on more than 40 occasions, between February 2011 and mid-2012, Shell received environmental citations while producing shale gas in the US.

“These citations include leaving an abandoned well unplugged, allowing pollutants to enter the water of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and failing to prevent the upward migration of gas and other fluids from drilling operations into higher water formations,” he states.

However, Eggink denies that these citations were as a result of environmental hazards, adding that, “people should not forget that the vast majority of these violations are administrative.”

“Shell informs the US Office of Environment and Energy of even small instances that occur, such as sediment running off a road because of the rain, as we are compelled to report any incidents and always comply with good operating standards.

“This does not mean that the incidences reported posed any harm to the environment; it is simply Shell complying with good operator practices.”

Further, TKAG states that it will continue to oppose shale gas exploration and fracking and will increase its numbers to ensure fracking does not take place in South Africa.

“We need to ensure that the legacy we leave to our children is free of pollution and the related health problems.

“There are renewable options, such as solar energy, which will provide for South Africa’s energy needs without harming the environment,” Deal stresses.

Here, Shell partially concurs with TKAG, stating that: “South Africa definitely needs to be concentrating on implementing renewables, but renewables should be coupled with fossil fuels, such as shale gas, to ensure industry’s energy needs and the nation’s employment needs are met with the resources at our disposal.

“Shell would not support shale gas exploration if we did not believe that it can be done in an environment-friendly way,” Eggink reiterates adding that Shell is willing to address any environmental concerns raised.
 

Edited by: Chanel de Bruyn
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