Don’t Frack With Our Karoo: SA Approves Shale Gas Exploration, Let The Lawsuits Begin

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Written by Dana Sanchez

After years of speculation and delays over environmental concerns, shale gas exploration will begin by March 2017, the South Africa government said.

South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo region is thought to hold at least 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, and the government said it could be the answer to the country’s energy challenges as coal-fired power stations struggle to meet the rising electricity demand, AFP reported.

By comparison, the U.S. has 622.5 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“One area of real opportunity for South Africa is the exploitation of shale gas,” the government said in a statement. “Exploration activities are scheduled to commence in the next financial year.”

The Karoo isn’t the only area targeted for shale gas exploration.

In February, Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration South Africa said it plans to explore 7.4 million hectares (18.28 million acres) in South Africa — more than half of it in KwaZulu-Natal including Pietermaritzburg, plus sites in the Free State and Eastern Cape, News24 reported.

The Karoo region and the Valley of Desolation near Graaf Reinet in the Eastern Cape have been earmarked for shale gas exploration and anti-fracking groups are threatening to sue, according to SABC.

Jonathan Deal is CEO of Treasure Karoo Action Group in the Eastern Cape. “We have water shortage,” he said. “For our government to even consider an activity that takes place above and around our very precious water source which has the potential to pollute it, is really nonsensical.”

Shale gas has been a game changer for the U.S. Natural gas is expected to provide 40 percent of U.S. energy needs in the future, thanks in part to the abundant supply of shale gas, according to an MIT study, NBR.org reported.

Shale gas is natural gas produced from shale, a type of sedimentary rock. It’s removed from the rock in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is water intensive and requires chemicals to be pumped into the ground.

Fracking involves digging wells up to 2.5 miles deep. The water and chemicals crack the shale rock and release the gas, AFP reported. In 2012, the South African government lifted an 18-month moratorium on hydraulic fracturing to weigh the environmental and economic implications of the process.

The fracking process can cause small earth tremors, Deal said. It’s happened in the U.S. and could become a reality for South Africans if fracking starts.

Fracking has been an increasingly important way of securing of natural gas in the U.S. over the past decade. Interest has spread to Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. While its potential is being studied in many countries, only a few produce it on a commercial scale. North America leads worldwide production. It’s also produced commercially in Argentina and China, according to ChinaUSFocus.

Environmental concerns have led to restrictions on hydraulic fracturing to produce shale gas or oil.

“Shale extraction is very water intensive, with one fracking event using up to 20 million liters of water,” said Tjasa Bole-Rentel, a researcher with World Wildlife Fund South Africa, in a News24 report.

She said the chemicals pumped into the water before it is injected into the ground could be carcinogenic, affecting the human endocrine system and sensory organs.

South Africa is the 30th driest country in the world and water resources should be considered before the government grants any licences, Bole-Rentel said.

Anglo-Dutch energy firm Shell is interested in South African gas exploration, and has expressed concern over the lack of progress, according to AFP. If it’s granted a licence to drill, the company said it plans to spend $200 million on the first exploration phase of six wells.

Shale gas technology is extremely expensive and “difficult to make commercially viable,” said Saliem Fakir, head of World Wildlife Fund-SA, according to News24. It’s stored in rocks that are impermeable, making it it difficult to extract.

“Although America has made fracking work, South Africa might only be able to cope in 20 to 30 years when technology improves and there is a viable gas market, but not now,” he said.

Other oil and gas companies that want to drill for shale gas include Falcon Oil & Gas, an early entrant that wants to explore 11,600 square miles along the southern edge of the Karoo Basin, according to the EIA. Sunset Energy holds a 1,780-square-mile permit. Sasol/Chesapeake/Statoil JV TCP has 34,000 square miles and Anglo Coal TCP applied for 19,300 square miles.