“Do you know what fracking the Karoo is like?” demanded Esme Senekal of Somerset East. The people from Royal Dutch Shell and their consultants didn’t reply, their faces impassive.
“It’s like you coming and drilling holes in our mother, and then leaving us to look after her and take her to hospital. Leave the Karoo alone!
“This is the last piece of holy nature in this country. No money is worth this. You can’t replace pristine nature with money.”
The surrounding sunburnt Karoo farmers, not a group usually given to high emotion, loudly applauded her.
The public meeting, organised by Shell’s consultants, Golder Associates (slogan: “Engineering Earth’s development, protecting Earth’s integrity”), was held at the Somerset East Town Hall, and started with a prayer to protect God’s creation.
Most of the attendees bowing their heads were farmers who face the possibility of losing everything if, heaven forbid, shale gas is found under their farms – or for that matter, anywhere in the Karoo.
The municipality, which has just as much to lose since Somerset East depends completely on groundwater, had sent not a single representative.
What the Frack?
Fracking is simply this: it is a process of drilling 1 to 4 km under the surface to a layer of shale where natural gas is trapped. The drill is then turned sideways and continues for another few thousand metres.
Using millions of litres of water, sand and an array of chemicals (many of which are carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting or just plain toxic), the rock is repeatedly fractured by high-pressure mini-explosions underground, releasing the gas, which rises to the surface. The process uses up to 20 million litres of water, thousands of litres of chemicals plus sand.
Around half of this is returned to the surface and has to be handled as toxic wastewater.
Tens of thousands of wells have been dug in America, Canada, Australia and many other parts of the world, where a groundswell of popular protest has started.
This is because groundwater has frequently been contaminated as a result of drilling procedures or faulty well casings, either with methane or the chemicals.
Fracturing the Earth
Just Google ‘fracking’ (short for hydraulic fracturing) on the internet and you’ll be hard put to choose between the hundreds of heartrending accounts and YouTube videos from all around the world.
Each account is a little different, but almost every one mentions the fact that the oil and gas companies who came to drill and fracture the earth assured them that it was safe.
Shell did the same to this crowd, but the attendees had done their homework and remained completely sceptical except for one emerging farmer who asked hopefully about job creation.
No benefits, only risk
Shell at least had the good grace not to even pretend there will be jobs or any benefit whatsoever to the community. The only ones to benefit will be Government (which owns any and all minerals, gas and oil underground) and Shell, and they admitted as much.
Again and again Shell were asked if they could give an assurance (and to back it with money) that groundwater and therefore the health, livelihoods, communities and towns in the Karoo would not be affected.
All Adam Dodson could say was that Shell had never any incident of contamination while doing exploratory fracking.
He also said the Government was the only recourse for compensation of any kind. There was a stifled groan from the crowd.
Not a Clue
The community came to get answers, but went away with nothing.
According to Adam Dodson, Shell’s Unconventional Oil & Gas Exploration Manager (New Ventures), they still have no idea where the millions of litres of water needed for fracking will come from. Possibilities at this stage included treated surface water (for which read sewage), deep saline aquifers or seawater trucked in by train.
They also could not say which of the chemicals would be used underground.
In fact, Shell and Golder made it clear there would be no real answers at all – this was just the first phase of a very long campaign.
“You’ll be seeing us a lot,” Tisha Greyling of Golder Associates assured the discontented crowd.
The Karoo lives on Groundwater
Also present at the meeting was Ernest Pringle, president of Agri-Eastern Cape and a farmer in the affected district. He stood up in front of the meeting to emphasise the importance of groundwater. The recent crippling drought in the Bedford and Somerset East region was just a reminder, he said.
“I spent all my time trying to pump up more groundwater to keep going. So we want to know with certainty what the effects will be to the underground water supply.”
When asked if there was any kind of possibility that contamination could happen, Dodson pursed his lips and looked down.
Dr Fiona Brown, who also farms nearby, implored Shell to use the precautionary principle.
“You know nothing about the Karoo’s groundwater and how aquifers are interconnected. No one does. And you don’t know what can go wrong.”
Shell and Golder representatives were unmoved. Tisha Greyling of Golder conceded that there will, inevitably, be unhappy people.
Also, they revealed that the long term plan for the gas was that it would be used for power stations to be set up across the Karoo (with the attendant power lines, substations and the rest).
After the repeated entreaties for Shell to drop the bid or to rather look into solar and wind energy, the last ominous word on the matter came from Tisha Greyling of Golder Associates.
“If it’s not Shell, it will be someone else.”
- This article first appeared on 31 January 2011. It has been slightly edited.