The Karoo is a stunning but thirsty semi-desert stretching, from the Western coast of South Africa, across a third of the country. It is ecologically rich in scenery, plants and wildlife, yet also one of the country’s poorest regions economically. In some of the small towns dotted along the highways unemployment is as high as 90%, with welfare grants often the main source of income.
However, far beneath the surface of the Karoo lies a potential solution to its economic problems and a source of much interest for the energy companies circling overhead.
It is believed that there are large reserves of natural gas trapped within the shale, which could be extracted through a process called ‘hydraulic fracturing’, more commonly known as fracking.
“Moderately optimistic” figures from the government’s Department of Mineral Resources estimate reserves of 485 trillion cubic feet, and even if just 30 trillion cubic feet were extracted, the potential windfall could be one trillion rand ($115 billion).
But unfortunately it is not all that easy. The process is extremely controversial and some believe that fracking would spell disaster for fragile ecosystems and livelihoods in the Karoo.
So-called ‘fracktivists’ have been protesting shale gas exploration in the region since Shell started assessing the area in 2011 and initially the South African government appeared to share their concerns.
In April 2011, the decision by the Department of Mineral Resources to place a moratorium on exploration licenses in order to allow time for a full investigation of the risks involved was endorsed by cabinet. Environmental groups were quick to take the credit, and hoped that it would be the first step towards banning fracking entirely, as Francehas done recently.
However, the resultant report was buoyant: fracking, it said, could have a “major impact on the national economy” and create “direct employment opportunities…likely to number in the tens of thousands”.
This led Energy Minister Dipuo Peters to allegedly claim that “it would be wrong…not to use the resources that God left us with”. The moratorium was lifted in September 2012 and companies began preparations to move into the Karoo, raising the stakes of the debate even further.
Smoke on the water
Fracking is not a new process, as the energy companies involved have been keen to reiterate. The process taps into previously inaccessible reserves of gas and oil, particles of which are trapped within deep-lying rock. A borehole is drilled far enough down, and then turns horizontally, running through the rock.
Then, the ‘fracking fluid’ (a mixture of water, chemicals and sand-like particles) is pumped at high pressure through the rock, causing it to crack. These fractures allow the trapped particles to be released and they make their way to the surface.
The process was introduced in the US over 60 years ago, and the majority of research into its risks has been carried out there. Such studies have warned of contaminated drinking water, health issues and even earthquakes, however such findings remain contested.
Gerrit van Tonder, Professor at the Institute for Groundwater Studies at the University of the Free State, had previously been dismissive of the environmental concerns around fracking, but changed his mind in mid-2012 in a U-turn which was widely picked up by the South African press.
He is now convinced that the unique geology of the Karoo comes with significant risks. The Karoo, he explains, is an artesian basin, meaning water deep in the rocks is stored at relatively high pressure. This means that if drilling were to occur, “Water and gas will flow upwards along preferential pathways like faulty well casings and along dolerite dykes which are numerous in the Karoo basin”.
In the event of a leaking gas well, contaminated water far below the ground could appear on the surface in a matter of months. “Thousands and thousands of hectares of groundwater may be contaminated”, he warns.
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu has promised that the process will be stopped if it is shown to pollute water. But van Tonder has been frustrated in his attempts to gain funding for new research.
Instead, his predictions rely on the examination of exploration wells drilled in the 1960s in the hope of finding oil, which were then abandoned when no resources were located. A video seen by Think Africa Press shows his team opening one of these disused wells. Warm, dirty water flows out and, when a match is held to the stream, high methane levels mean the water catches fire.
Meanwhile downstream of the boreholes, water with salt levels eight times the safety levels for human consumption have been found. For van Tonder, these lessons of the past are just a glimpse of what fracking could mean for the future.
Jonathan Deal, ecotourism expert in the region, agrees wholeheartedly with van Tonder’s concerns. In 2011, Deal founded the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), an organisation that protests the against exploration plans.
Deal is vehemently against fracking in South Africa, but sees this particular campaign as part of a global picture. “South Africa has very strong environmental legislation and a very strong environmental provision in our constitution”, he says. “Were South Africa to fall to shale gas mining, I believe that it would be a strategic blow to those opposing shale gas mining globally. It’s got the potential to be a strategic domino in a series of dominos”.
However, not everyone is convinced about the dangers of fracking and many instead emphasise the potential economic benefits. Ivo Vegter, journalist and author of Extreme Environment, sees the anti-fracking campaign as a case of the environmental movement abusing statistics and over-emphasising the potential threats.
“We should not let our public policy be railroaded by the exaggerated risks and fears of people who are either well-off or misinformed by green activists”, he says. He also dismissed the press reaction to Van Tonder’s ‘U-turn’ as “alarmist and uncritical”.
For Vegter, the Karoo is in desperate need of the jobs and prosperity that the industry promises. “Even if shale gas only contributed to relieving our electricity crisis, so that our industry could once against operate at full productivity, the economic benefits would be great”, he says.
Deal agrees that there are economic imperatives, but argues that the promises of jobs have been exaggerated. He believes that many of the jobs would go to imported experts rather than the local unemployed. Furthermore, the benefits are relatively short-term, as wells become unusable after as little as seven or eight years.
Indeed, Vegter admits that shale reserves will run out and energy companies will move on, but does not see this as a valid reason to deny local communities the benefits now. Failing to take this window of opportunity would be ruinous, he fears: “The industry will forgo South Africa altogether, and concentrate on production in friendlier business climes. That would be a great loss to the country”.
At times, the disagreements between the two sides of the debate have got personal. The familiar faces involved often appear in heated public debates and both sides have accused the other of twisting of the facts.
One accusation is that environmentalist groups such as TKAG represent the interests of wealthy landowners at the expense of the poor and marginalised who need jobs. Some sections of the media have even portrayed the divide as a racial issue.
For Davison Mudzingwa, who is directing a documentary called What’s the Frack! about Deal’s campaign, there is something to this socio-economic argument.
“The poor half of the Karoo need jobs”, he says, but adds that “it’s all hinged on awareness. They need jobs but they are not aware of the long-term consequences of fracking to their environment and the future generation. If awareness is stepped up, I’m sure the schism of race with regard to fracking will be smoothed out”.
But with the moratorium lifted and energy companies gearing up to explore the riches of the Karoo, time for cultivating such awareness is running out and the debate has taken on a new urgency.
Deal expects the government to issue exploration rights towards the beginning of next year. Following this, the anti-fracking lobby will have 30 days to submit a written appeal to the government.
However, with the ruling African National Congress party seemingly in no mood to keep talking – secretary-general Gwede Mantashe announced at the end of July that moving ahead with fracking was non-negotiable for a government keen to kick-start the stagnating economy – South African fractivists may end up having to bring their appeals to the high court. And on this possibility, Deal’s feelings are clear: “We’ll meet you in court, Mr Mantashe”.
*Rosie Hore is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in the international relations of African countries. You can follow her on Twitter @rosiehore.
– Think Africa Press