Words by Julienne du Toit
Fracking is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’, an American way of breaking up rock deep underground using millions of litres of water, sand and chemicals pumped deep into the earth under high pressure.
This creates cracks in the rock, releasing gas.
The gas is called methane, but some people call it shale gas. If it is ever extracted in South Africa, this gas would probably be used to generate electricity.
Fracking is a method that was first used in America in 1949, to ‘stimulate’ oil wells that were close to being depleted.
But the fracking being done now is very different to what was done then. In the 1990s, a new method was been pioneered and is technically known as horizontal slickwater hydraulic fracturing.
It uses far more water and far more chemicals than the old ways of fracking.
Each time they frack a well, they use between 6 million and 25 million litres of water. This is enough to fill between 3 or 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
In addition, they use up to 20 tons of chemicals, along with sand.
In this method, the drill is turned sideways once it reaches the shale layer (usually 3km or more underground) and can go at least another 2km. Then small explosive charges are set off underground to create cracks in the rock. The sand is there to keep the tiny cracks open.
The gas then comes up to the surface, along with between 30 and 60 percent of the wastewater, which is toxic and has to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
Meet the Frackers
The geological Karoo Basin, which stretches from southern Mpumalanga and Gauteng all the way down to the Swartberg Mountains and across to East London, contains deep shale layers that geologists feel may contain viable quantities of methane.
The would-be frackers are Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil & Gas from Canada, along with their American partner Chevron, as well as Challenger Energy (also called Bundu), from Australia.
Shell wants to extract gas from about 90 000 square kilometres. That is an area the size of KwaZulu-Natal. It stretches from Bedford in the east to Sutherland in the west.
Falcon Oil & Gas have got a permit to explore 30 000sq km for gas, an area one and a half times the size of the Kruger National Park. In includes the mohair capital of Jansenville, as well as Aberdeen, Rietbron, Merweville and Leeu Gamka.
Bundu (Challenger) has applied to frack a 3 200 square km around Pearston, Jansenville, Cradock and Somerset East.
Together they make up an area as big as the entire Eastern Cape. Other companies like Sungu Sungu, Anglo American and Moonstone are in the first phases of applications and are doing desktop studies on viability.
Royal Dutch Shell has been very interactive but little or no information has been forthcoming from the other applicants.
Why is fracking so controversial?
Fracking uses vast amounts of water – an immediate red flag in a water-poor country like South Africa. Most of the towns and all of the farms in the Karoo depend on groundwater for survival. Annual rainfall varies between about 50mm in the west to 350mm in the east.
By far the greatest worry is that the invasive process of drilling and fracturing and large quantities of chemicals and explosive gases will cause short-term and long-term problems with the groundwater.
It is still unclear where the water will come from. Possibilities mentioned by Shell so far include seawater, brackish water from deep wells in the Karoo and wastewater. For exploration purposes, the companies might be able to use fresh water, but it’s unlikely there will be enough fresh water for full production.
During production phase (after exploration), every shale gas well is fracked several times, typically within five years, each time using up to 20 millions of litres of water. There may ultimately be thousands of wells.
So what to do with the contaminated water afterwards? The quantities are massive, and the water is unusable. It will be briny and contaminated with chemicals.
But it’s not only what the fracking companies add that is dangerous. Three kilometres down there are already harmful substances that would come up with the briny wastewater. These include Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORMs) and possibly carcinogenic substances like benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene, which are associated with hydrocarbons.
For this reason, Shell has said they will have to dispose of the salty contaminated wastewater at hazardous waste facilities during the exploration phase, and have said they will create other facilities if they go into production phase.
American fracking is generating 2.38 billion cubic metres of wastewater a year, nearly half of what South Africa’s largest dam, the Gariep, can hold.
A Fracking Technicality
Oil and gas companies say that fracking has not resulted in a single incident of contaminated groundwater. But they are hiding behind a technicality.
They classify fracking as the one-day process of high pressure pumping that cracks open the shale, whereas ordinary people understand fracking to include the transportation of chemicals, the drilling, the creation of well-casings, capturing and disposing of the wastewater and closing the well up after completion.
Many people in America have reported that their water became discoloured, smelt bad, bubbled with methane and became flammable, and tasted bad after fracking started in their vicinity. Many of these incidents are attributable to drilling, not the day-long event of fracking.
After this happened, an unknown number of families have had to sign non-disclosure agreements with fracking companies in return for being supplied with clean water. This means these incidents of contamination are not officially recognized or recorded. Property prices have dropped, and in cases of bad contamination, property has become valueless.
South African documentary-maker Jolynn Minnaar made this the subject of her powerful anti-fracking movie, Unearthed.
Apart from the reality that surface water and groundwater have been polluted by faulty well casings and spillages, there are many anecdotal examples of fracking’s effect on human health.
For example, here is a painstakingly collected List of the Harmed.
Often people with fracking operations nearby complain of headaches, nosebleeds, memory loss, eye irritation, breathing difficulties.
In America, where fracking has been exempted from laws relating to water pollution, exposure to fracking chemicals has occasionally been found to be extremely hazardous.
In one famous case, reported on by a US Government watchdog organisation in 2008, a Colorado nurse nearly died of organ failure after being exposed to a worker who had been soaked in fracking liquids.
Airborne pollutants can also be a problem, as shown by this University of Colorado study.
Fracking and its wastewater has also been found to harm livestock.
Farmers, Jobs, Shale and High Finance
In South Africa, no one is allowed to prevent fracking or mining companies from coming onto their property for exploration or exploitation, because the mineral rights below the ground belong to the Government.
However, Shell has said that they will (in the exploration phase) avoid landowners that are against fracking and will only go onto properties where they are welcome. They have also said they will pay a nuisance fee to the landowners.
There is much talk about fracking in the Karoo bringing jobs and cheap energy, but this is unlikely to happen for a decade or more, if it happens at all.
Shell has made it clear that available jobs during the exploration phase (which will last between 3 and 9 years, and during which it will drill between 6 and 24 wells) will be negligible.
If the shale gas is found to be present in commercial quantities, there may be jobs available, but this is unlikely to happen before 2023. Skilled jobs will likely go to foreigners with experience in drilling and rigs. Shell has also raised the point that they are “cognisant there may be no gas”.
There are worries about the possible effect on agriculture. The Karoo supplies 30% of South Africa’s red meat and 30% of its wool.
At a public meeting in April 2013, Shell public relations official Bob Govender conceded that the gas will be expensive to extract and as a result, electricity from gas will be expensive too.
This is because the geology of the Karoo is known to be difficult because of ironstone (dolerite) intrusions, because all infrastructure will have to be created from scratch, because skilled personnel will have to be sourced from overseas, as will the machinery. In addition, regulations are likely to be far stricter here than they are in North America.
Sasol, which had fracking concession in the northern Karoo, decided to opt out in November 2011 because they said it would cost six times the price to drill a well in South Africa compared to their operations in Canada. The company also believed it would take 20 years to reach commercial gas production.
Questions are increasingly being asked about the financial and physical sustainability of shale gas.
Once fracked, shale gas well productions decline rapidly. The average productive life of a shale gas well is less than seven years.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s shale layers remain undrilled and are likely to remain so until regulations are put in place.