Fracking may ignite Karoo water conflict

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 05 September 2010

A battle is brewing between local people and major energy companies looking to exploit possible sources of shale gas in the Karoo.

Shale gas is natural gas stored in rocks that are rich in organic material such as dark colored shale

And at the heart of the conflict will be the one thing that is really scarce in the Karoo – water.

Five companies have recently been given the go-ahead to search for shale gas – trapped deep in the shale rock making up the Karoo landscape. Among them is Sasol, which has partnered with Statoil and American energy company Chesapeake, Shell, Anglo American, Falcon Gas and Oil and Bundu Gas and Oil, which is owned by an Australian holding company.

Bundu and Sasol executives have both said that if enough gas were found in the area, it would be “game-changing” for the industry.

And while most of these permits are technical co-operation permits (TCPs) and only allow for desktop studies, locals are worried about a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, in which vast amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are pumped into the ground to fracture the rock and release the gas.

The process would require millions of litres of water (up to 20 million litres for each production test well drilled) from the already sparse Karoo. And communities in the US where the procedure is becoming increasingly common, have cried foul after water became contaminated, apparently as a result of fracking. The US government has ordered an investigation into hydraulic fracturing.

Professor Maarten de Wit, of the department of geology at the University of Cape Town, said the interest in the Karoo as a source for shale gas had started about two years when Shell applied for rights to prospect for gas across large tracts of the Karoo. This made other companies sit up and take notice.

De Wit said that while fracking was water intensive, non-potable water sources could be considered.

“There should be very strict environmental rules in place before mining of shale gas is given the go ahead; one thing that is worth noting is that they need not necessarily have to use potable water; brackish water (as there is in some parts of the Karoo) might well do. But it’s very early days in this new field of shale gas exploration, let alone exploitation,” De Wit said.

A press release issued by Sasol in July quoted executive Ebbie Haan as saying “a discovery of large recoverable shale gas reserves in the Karoo Basin will be a game-changer in the broader SA energy market context and will likely constitute a major step to further develop gas transmission and distribution infrastructure in the country”.

Bundu, whose application for an exploration right has been accepted by the Petroleum Agency of South Africa, was one of the first to apply for rights.

Their application covers over 300 000 hectares of the Karoo.

Paul Bilston of Sunset Energy, the Australian company which owns Bundu, said they had withdrawn their first application, and the second had been denied by the Petroleum Association of SA in May, based on environmental grounds.

Bundu submitted a third application that took account of environmental objections. “We have done this to the best of our ability, firstly by removing gazetted game reserves from the application area, and secondly we will be reviewing and increasing the funding required as a bond to cover rehabilitation liabilities.”

But at a meeting this week, three private game reserves heard that they would be included in the new, larger area.

Bundu will need to submit an environmental management plan before being given exploration rights, then it will take around three years before any drilling takes place.

Graaff Reinet attorney Derek Light , who is representing some 100 landowners and farmers in the area in the Bundu issue, said Bundu’s campaign has been characterised by secrecy.

At a meeting held in Pearston on Thursday, locals were given a map detailing the area for the first time. Light said it was also the first time Bundu admitted that “fracking” would be used.

Locals were not happy with the way in which the meeting was conducted, saying little dialogue had occurred.

Light said they had also been told they had only a few days in which to make submissions.

“It’s difficult to make a meaningful contribution in that amount of time. This is not a game. This is 950 000 acres of ground. This is a big deal,” Light said.

Iain Buchanan of the Mount Camdeboo Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape said that while he understood the need to create jobs in the area, his biggest concern was water.

“Water is something we crave in the Karoo so if this could affect our water, there is just no way we could condone it.”

But Bilston said: “Given the modest scope of our initial exploration we do not expect to impact significantly on the Karoo?

“In terms of water, it is a key issue, and while we are confident of being able to obtain the water to carry out our exploration programme, we will need to look at how water for this is sourced and reused as part of any larger programme.”

By: Bianca Capazorio
Source: Business Report

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