Amanda Watson
News Editor
3 minute read
17 May 2015
8:00 am

Fracking – the final frontier

Amanda Watson

While this week’s announcement of a panel called the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for Shale Gas Development to investigate fracking in the Karoo was for the most part widely welcomed, there is a small problem for some.

FILE PICTURE. Pump jacks are seen at dawn in an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is on the verge of a boom, on March 24, 2014 near Lost Hills, California

And this exploration of the “special place that must be respected – socially and environmentally” according to Royal Dutch Shell, will continue. “We already do an environmental impact assessment before we start drilling any wells so this is basically augment what is proposed by the government,” says Jan-Willem Eggink, Upstream General Manager of Shell South Africa.

“We regard it to be very important to look at the effects and the impacts during any of our activities that could happen to the environment.”

Shell, Falcon Oil & Gas from Canada, along with their American partner Chevron, as well as Challenger Energy (also called Bundu) from Australia are the companies interested in cracking open underground shale deposits to release natural gas which may, or may not, be there, hence the need for exploration.

Everyone is familiar with South Africa’s dire need for energy, one only has to consult a load shedding schedule to re-familiarise oneself with this.

“South African government, through Cabinet and various other decision-making institutions, has made high-level public commitments to shale gas exploration. If the exploration phase occurs and yields successful hydrocarbon deposits and gas-flow regimes, it is a reasonable assumption that

Government would consider development of those resources at a significant scale,” the SEA website states.

“It is for this reason we carry out EIA’s and it is a vital assessment the government is doing, overarching the EIA which will look only at the impact for instance of one well or one activity will have on the environment,” Eggink says.

“For the application of the licences we did an environmental management plan and before we could actually carry out any drilling activity we have to do a site specific environmental, social, and health impact assessment.”

Van Eggink did not believe the SEA was overkill, but said it was important in their book that exploration continues as soon as possible.

“The impact of the exploration campaign will be very limited and will be covered by the EIA. This very much addresses the impacts of activity on a larger scale such as development in a later stage. The drilling of one exploration well will have a very small effect, if any, on the environment.”

Yet heavy duty trucks spouting diesel fumes and dripping oil trundling around the ecologically sensitive area carrying drilling equipment used to bore holes down which tons of waste/sea/chemically enhanced water – nobody is sure which, but it won’t be potable water – will be used to fracture rocks to test for gas deposits are an absolute fact.

In an area relatively untouched by humans compared to say, Gauteng, there will be a noticeable impact, says Treasure Karoo Action Group South Africa (TKAG) ceo Jonathan Deal. He believes Shell believes the impact will be negligible. “That’s their perspective, it’s absolutely unbelievable,” he said, noting TKAG had caught Shell out on a number of occasions.

In an ideal world the strategic environmental assessment would have taken place and been completed before exploration was allowed,” says Deal, lamenting governments “mismanagement” of the process.

He too welcomes the formation of SEA however, saying it was something which should have happened four years ago. “TKAG will be involved in the process and it intends to use every opportunity to play a pivotal role – from defining terms of reference, to placing specific data in front of the assessors in an effort to ensure that government policy is informed by science,” Deal said in a statement this week.

However, he cautions – who eyes the oil companies with a jaundiced eye, if not as the devil incarnate – the granting of licences does not allow them to simply move on to any farm they like. “There are still many legal steps which have to be managed them and the government before the breaking of any ground takes place,” Deal notes. “And if the licences are issued without public consultation, they will definitely find themselves in court.

“We are going to insist communication is at a level locals can grasp, you don’t start talking hydro-physics with farm workers, there has to be a real understanding of what is going to happen.”