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Mar 13, 2012

Shale gas could boost economy, but risks should be assessed

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Director of ground water studies at the University of the Free State, Dr Danie Vermeulen discusses the advantages and disadvantages of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. Camera: Nicholas Boyd. Editing: Darlene Creamer
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South Africa potentially boasts the fifth-largest shale gas deposit in the world, making it hard to ignore the benefits that such a significant resource could provide the country’s economy, if it is implemented and managed well, director of ground water studies at the University of the Free State, Dr Danie Vermeulen, said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a gathering of the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions at Gallager Estate, in Midrand, Vermeulen pointed out that a number of contradicting statements were being used in arguments for, and against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“Some environmentalists tend to distort or over emphasise certain facts, while leaving out other chunks of information that does not support their agendas. On the other hand, some companies interested in operating fracking activities have also been found to distort facts in ways to support their agendas of gaining access to the gas,” he told Engineering News Online.

However, owing to the act of liberating natural gas from shale rock, entailing water, sand and chemicals being pumped deep into the earth’s crust, the risk of pollution and irreparable damage is ever present.

“The risk of extracting the gas is comparable to that of underground mining operations. With such a substantial resource of natural gas being locally available, the benefits to South Africa’s economy could be substantial,” Vermeulen said.

His comments echoed what the late Tony Twine said at the release of an economic study on fracking earlier this month. The Econometrix modelling estimated fracking could add between R80-billion and R200-billion to the country’s yearly gross domestic product if only a small portion of the speculated shale resource base was exploited. Twine, who passed away over the weekend, also estimated that between 300 000 and 700 000 upstream and downstream jobs could be generated.

Vermeulen believed that fracking in the South African context would be harmless to local groundwater supplies, owing to the fact that the activity would take place at depths of between 4 km and 5 km below the surface.

“While fracking is harmless to surface organisms and humans, we have coined a new term called ‘fracktivities’, which pose a greater threat to the wellbeing of the local environment than fracturing shale at depth,” he said.

So-called Fracktivities referred to all the surface support activities, such as boring equipment, trucks and other infrastructure associated with sinking a borehole and establishing a working gas well. “If these surface activities are not managed well, the consequences could by far outweigh the risks of fracking,” he cautioned.

While the Mineral Resources Department-imposed moratorium on the issuing of new shale gas exploration licences is due to be reviewed and possibly lifted by the end of the month, Vermeulen pointed out that commercial fracking in South Africa is still about nine years away, owing to significant exploration projects still to be undertaken, followed by detailed environmental and feasibility studies to be completed before licences would be issued to start fracking operations.

“In light of the extended timeframe before fracking becomes a reality in South Africa, one could assume that technological advances in the period could further assist to reduce environmental risks,” he said.

Further, Vermeulen pointed out that boreholes are generally sunk and the shale fractured in a relatively short timeframe, with the only visible evidence of a gas well being a pipeline leading from the well to a central storage facility. When a gas well is spent, the surface area could be fully rehabilitated, although the chemicals pumped into the earth’s crust can never be removed.

Meanwhile, he said South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope would not be affected by fracking activities, as long as these remained 30 km away from the closest sensors.

Edited by: Mariaan Webb
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