South Africa is correct to exercise caution before formulating its policy relating to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and should be wary of moving ahead until thorough scientific study of the possible risks have been undertaken, a geological expert cautioned on Wednesday. But proponents of fracking believe South Africa has much to gain, particularly on the economic and energy fronts, by pressing ahead with exploration, arguing that the risks are limited and can be mitigated.
Addressing a debate on the appropriateness of South Africa's current moratorium on the issuance of exploration licences for shale gas in the Karoo, Dr Chris Hartnady, a former University of Cape Town Geological Sciences associate professor and current technical director at groundwater consultancy Umvoto, said that there were serious questions still to be answered about what he termed a relatively recent technology innovation.
These included whether the full-cycle emissions, or fugitive emissions, were indeed lower than that of coal. Whether the economics, as measured on the basis of energy return on energy invested, made sense. Whether the well casings and cement sheaths used to extract the gas while maintaining the integrity of sub-surface water resources, were in fact fail-safe. And, whether "poking holes" in the Karoo region could affect the stability of a region already prone to earthquakes. Hartnady noted that the most recent earthquake in the region took place on May 14, 2011.
But none of the speakers supported an indefinite and "unqualified" extension of the moratorium, with some such as Professor Philip Lloyd and journalist Ivo Vegter, suggesting an immediate lifting. Hartnady and water specialist Dr Anthony Turton, on the other hand, welcomed the current cautious approach to allow for the science on fracking to be better interrogated and a transparent and fully regulated policy to be "negotiated".
In fact, Turton urged the creation of a new social compact involving water, energy, climate and agricultural scientists, policymakers and practitioners forging a transparent policy on fracking, as well as a policy on the emerging "super nexus" of water, energy, food and global climate change. Until that compact emerged, however, the “precautionary principle” should be applied.
Hartnady went further, saying the moratorium should remain in place until a scientific “baseline” on water contamination, rural environments, full-cycle emissions, as well as the impact on hydrogeology, which had to be observed over several years, was established.
THE CASE FOR
But Lloyd argued that the precautionary principle made no sense in the context of fracking, which would never be able to prove its worth or viability if exploration to establish the gas resource and production to verify its economics and environmental acceptability were not permitted.
Lloyd said that fracking had the potential to change the face of South Africa's coal-heavy energy economy and create "hundreds of thousands" of jobs directly and through economic spin-offs, from gas-fired power stations and steelmaking, to gas-to-liquids facilities and even providing fuel for taxis.
He noted that the potential gas resource, which required exploration to prove, was the equivalent of 1 000 trillion cubic feet, making South Africa a potentially large source of unconventional gas. In fact, it was estimated that South Africa could host the fifth largest unconventional gas resource globally, after China, the US, Argentina and Mexico.
He described the potential environmental impacts as manageable and said that the relatively small footprint of fracking plants would make them near invisible in the vast Karoo landscape.
The debate, hosted jointly by the Johannesburg Press Club and EE Publishers, concluded with the audience voting overwhelmingly for the lifting of the moratorium - 84 in favour, 31 opposed and 12 still undecided.
The debate was hosted only a day after a UK parliamentary committee found “no evidence” to support the need for the implementation of a moratorium on drilling for unconventional gas, and weeks after France’s senate recommended a freeze.
The US, meanwhile, is continuing to ramp-up drilling, but plans to pursue tighter environmental restrictions on the fracking industry.
South Africa has imposed a moratorium on all drilling and the issuance of exploration permits.