Although government has lifted the moratorium on shale gas exploration in the Karoo, petrochemicals giant Sasol is not planning on further pur- suing shale gas opportunities in the area at this stage, as its acreage is not promising from a geological perspective, Sasol Technology executive manager for research and technology Dr Sven Godorr tells Engineering News.
Minister in the Presidency Responsible for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Collins Chabane announced last month that Cabinet had decided to lift the mora- torium on shale gas exploration in the Karoo, imposed in April last year, after a study completed by a special task team eased concerns related to the safety of the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, method.
The lifting of the moratorium means that normal exploration may continue, but fracking will not yet be allowed, pending changes to South Africa’s mining regulations.
On November 17, 2010, a technical cooperation permit (TCP) was awarded to SPI, a Sasol partnership with Chesapeake and Statoil, to conduct desktop studies to assess shale gas potential in the semi-arid Karoo basin.
An extensive technical study of the area was concluded. Initial studies, however, did not reveal particularly strong prospects within the licensed area.
Sasol discontinued its exploration activities in this area when the TCP expired on November 17, 2011. Sasol will, however, monitor further developments pertaining to the lifting of the moratorium on exploration, says Godorr.
He emphasises that, even if fracking is eventually allowed to go ahead in South Africa, Sasol will not use this method if it is not environment friendly.
He says fracking can be done in an environmentally acceptable way, but warns that mistakes can also be made.
“I think there is enough evidence to support the notion that fracking can be done safely, but serious consideration has to be given to current concerns, such as water contamination,” he adds.
It is, therefore, important for a thorough environmental-impact assessment to be done. Strong regulations to ensure environ- mental compliance are also needed.
“Fracking will have to be regulated and South Africa needs to look at fracking as a whole – everyone should be involved in this decision,” he states.
Godorr points out that any under- ground activity carries a risk and, there- fore, needs to be carefully monitored and managed.
“When gold mining started in 1886, no one anticipated acid mine drainage in South Africa, but it is a major problem today and government is still trying to find a solution.”
He stresses that South Africa’s engineering fraternity has to be careful and aware of the benefits and side effects of fracking. “We need to balance the good against the bad.”
Godorr states that fracking is a great way to improve South Africa’s wealth and energy security. “We will be energy independent and can become an energy exporter.
“If [shale] gas does become available in South Africa, I think Sasol will take the lead in monetising the gas and ensuring that it is used effectively,” he adds.
Chemicals Cause for Concern
Meanwhile, Godorr notes that, while one of the main concerns about fracking is the chemicals used in the process, safe options are available.
Fracking entails injecting fracking fluids, comprising water, sand and chemicals, under high pressure into shale formations. The fluids crack the formations and hold the fractures open to enable the extraction of the gas.
Godorr says biodegradable chemicals exist for use in such applications, which minimises exposure to the surface.
Further, he says there is no doubt South Africa has to move towards using more renewable energy; however, these resources have to be explored in a sensible manner.
“Biomass has its place, but it has a limited application and will not be the answer to South Africa’s energy needs, although it will play a part.
“Solar power can play a significant role, particularly in South Africa, where it is an abundant resource,” he explains.
The problem with renewable energy, however, is that supply is intermittent, which has prompted South Africa to consider alternative options, such as fracking.
“Is fracking an entirely risk-free process? No – but it can be managed,” Godorr concludes.