May

To frack, or not to frack? That is the question

2011-05-01 15:11
It would be naive to give Shell Oil the go ahead before it can provide substantially better assurances it will not wreck large tracts of the Karoo for years.

The world has been abuzz with the prospect of gaining access to huge natural gas (NG) resources locked in shale rock or oil sands deep down in the earth. This is especially so in the US and Canada. NG is a strong contender to provide much of the world with significant relief from dependency on oil and the need to resource it from the troublesome Middle East.

Other than Petro SA, a few small producers and a number of gas and oil explorers drilling for gas and oil around the Southern, Western and Eastern Cape Coastlines, South Africa has not been particularly synonymous with easy availability to gas for transport purposes. This was so until recently it became public knowledge that the Karoo is well endowed with a large area of shale rock that possibly holds billions – if not trillions – of cubic metres of NG. There is now a major drama being played out with the oil industry that wishes to plunder this resource as soon as possible.

Government is under pressure to issue licenses to explore for the gas while at the same time civil society, agriculture and other concerned individuals and organisations are wholeheartedly against any mining activities in what is widely considered to be an ecologically sensitive area. The concerns are intensified by the method used to gain access to the gas. The shale is usually found at considerable depths. This requires deep vertical and horizontal drilling to free the gas. Millions of litres of water are pumped under high pressure to break through the shale. The method is known as “fracturing’ or ‘˜fracking’ for short. The water is enhanced with sand and chemicals to prevent the fractures from clogging thereby providing a path for the gas to be retrieved.

So why the paranoia, as some describe it? Experience in the US, where fracking has been carried out for years and continues to be carried out on a large scale in several areas has caused a number of serious problems. These include contamination of water , this is especially problematical where people live and agriculture is present.

In the US, oil companies and their contractors are not obliged to disclose the chemicals they are using as part of the process and government seems reluctant to mandate disclosure. A recent issue of Time magazine
(April 11, 2011) published an in-depth article titled The Gas Dilemma reviewing the US experience since the beginning of hydrofracking. The following comments based on the views expressed by various contributors to the article provide a brief overview of the challenges and concerns currently being debated at the highest levels in the US.

  • Estimated recoverable shale gas resources are set at 23 trillion cubic metres. Together with all other energy sources, this would provide the US with energy for 100 years.
  • Shale gas could provide cheap energy to fill the gap until renewable energy resources can take over.
  • If trucks used NG, oil imports could be reduced.
  • Environmental backlash is evident through spills, water contamination and pollution especially with closely clustered wells.
  • The EPA wants a lifecycle analysis of hydrofracking undertaken to monitor the cumulative impact of wide-scale drilling on water supplies.
  • Chemicals used in fracking need to be identified. Currently this is not required by regulation.
  • 2400 wells were drilled between 2006 and 2010 and a further 300 during the first three months of 2011.
  • 63% of 1944 wells were in violation of regulations in respect of spills, explosions, Methane contamination  of water and faulty cementation of the wells.

Based on concerns such as contamination of ground water, unpredictable environmental and social impacts and suggestions that drilling is outpacing regulations, New York City and other areas have put fracking on hold for now.

The oil industry, particularly in the US, is known for its ability to lobby governments and environmental agencies to get what it wants. Fracking for shale gas is much cheaper and quicker to bring into production than conventional oil wells. Gaining access to drilling licenses and places known to be rich in shale and oil sands offers mega dollars for those who get into the game early.

Judging from the evidence gained in the US and South Africa’s limited experience with the persuasive powers of the oil majors, not to mention zero experience with the challenges that need to be overcome when fracking for gas, would it not be prudent for the DoE to take a leaf out of NYC’s book and put fracking in the Karoo on hold for now? It would be naïve to give Shell Oil the go ahead before it can provide substantially better assurances it will not wreck large tracts of the Karoo for years, maybe even 50 years depending on what happens to ground water in particular.

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