Fracking Up the Karoo

By Glenn Ashton · 10 Mar 2011

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The potential presence of natural gas deep beneath the surface of the Karoo has triggered a national hullabaloo. It is not the gas itself that is controversial; it is the proposed method of liberating it in commercially viable quantities, which has everybody up in arms.

If you asked most South Africans around the Xmas table last year what fracking was, you would probably have been met with blank stares. Now, because of applications by Shell Exploration, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, for permission to explore for gas in the Karoo using fracking, the term is rapidly becoming more familiar amongst South Africans.

Fracking is the colloquial compression of the word fracturing. It refers to the method of rupturing rock by forcing high pressure liquid into underground rock formations to liberate and collect otherwise inaccessible pockets of gas. Technically, fracking is the hydraulic fracturing of underground rock formations, mainly shale, which is both readily cracked and contains gas.

The cracks in the rock created by fracking are maintained by injecting a mixture of solids, including, sand, ceramics and other particles. These lodge in the cracks. When the pressure is released and the liquids are removed the gas, if present, can be extracted. 

There are serious concerns around fracking, particularly in water stressed areas like the Karoo because of the negative impacts that this process has had on groundwater - and consequently the environment - in many places around the world. Because of these problems, moratoriums have been placed on fracking in several US states including Pennsylvania, New York and Arkansas, and it is under heavy scrutiny elsewhere.

Shell South Africa has disingenuously claimed that fracking has at least a 60-year track record. While some hydraulic fracturing has historically been undertaken, modern fracking differs somewhat from 'traditional' fracking. 

Initially oil, water and gas wells could only be drilled vertically or at best, at an incline. Fracking in these circumstances had limited impact. However, recent technological advances have perfected cost-effective methods that enable fossil fuel wells to be drilled horizontally, through changing the direction of bore. This technology has enabled wells to intersect horizontal fossil fuel-bearing strata for long distances, up to several kilometres, greatly increasing the potential yields when used with fracking technology.

Innovations in machinery and uses of various chemicals have also assisted in the liberation of viable quantities of gas from the rock. Shale gas extraction companies have been reluctant to disclose the chemicals used and have constantly downplayed any associated danger. 

Perhaps the most comprehensive list of these chemicals has been compiled by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). TEDX has compiled a list of nearly 1000 chemicals, together with referenced studies on their impacts. Many of these chemicals are carcinogenic (cancer causing), hormone disruptors, mutagens (gene disruptors) or simply toxic to various organs or to the ecology. Others are secret or proprietary mixtures whose components are not disclosed or chemicals whose impacts have not been investigated or published at all. Shell has pledged to use 'green chemistry' and to provide full disclosure of all chemicals it proposes to use.

In fact, Shell has launched a concerted public relations offensive to support its application to frack the Karoo. However, even ostensibly respectable corporations like Shell have poor historical track records and their role of exploitation and environmental catastrophe in Nigeria is particularly damning.

There are two real concerns with fracking in the Karoo. First is the danger to underground water sources through injecting this devil's cocktail of chemicals. Second are the potential impacts of fracking on the water table itself, which may become damaged, draining away scarce underground water.

South Africa is an extremely water-scarce nation. The Karoo lies at the dry extreme of the scale, with an annual rainfall of around 300mm, less than half that of Cape Town or Johannesburg and a quarter of the KZN coastal zone. Karoo groundwater is recharged through this meagre rainfall. Groundwater is generally found in shallow aquifers of less than 100 meters depth. 

Most of the gas-bearing shale beds targeted by Shell and other exploration companies were first discovered by Soekor, the apartheid era state oil exploration company, during the 1960s. These formations lie between 1000 and 5000 meters below the surface. Shell insists there is little chance of cross contamination of the shallow groundwater through fracking these deep shale layers.

The debate about fracking in the USA was neatly encapsulated in the 2011 Oscar nominated documentary 'Gasland', which shows numerous serious impacts on water sources, property values and the ecology. Whole families are alleged to have become ill through polluted water, the release of toxins and radioactive gases related to fracking activities.  Given the extent of problems experienced in the USA, reasons for local concern appear well founded.

South Africa has extensive problems with inadequate regulatory oversight, especially regarding extractive industries. Our record of managing acid mine drainage, both from old gold mines and more modern coalmines has been tardy and inadequate. Conflicts between Ministries like Minerals and Energy and Environment regarding environmental planning and oversight of extractive industries remain largely unresolved. Budgetary and personnel constraints exacerbate these concerns. 

While there is extensive and increasingly vocal public concern about the risks of fracking in the Karoo, the public levels of expertise, resourcing and mandates to manage these risks remain open to question.  

In South Africa, it is not only Shell PLC – which has a turnover similar to our national GDP - which is involved in this new gas-rush. South African oil major Sasol, along with Norway's Statoil and US gas giant Chesapeake Energy Corporation, have jointly applied to prospect in the Free State, Eastern Cape, Karoo and KwaZulu Natal.

Sasol also recently purchased a 50% share in Canadian gas shale extractor Talisman Energy's Farrell Creek operation. Talisman and Sasol have agreed to collaborate on further projects, indicating Sasol's intent to actively pursue shale gas extraction, which aligns with its expertise in the gas-to-liquid fuel business it pioneered at Mossgas and now pursues globally.

There have also been applications to explore the southern Cape area between Cape Aghulas and Mossel Bay by Advasol (Pty.) Ltd. The large offshore gas fields supplying Mossgas hint at potential shale gas in the area. Even if these lie beneath the ocean they can be exploited through horizontal drilling and fracking. Other smaller gas companies have prospecting rights around the country, such as Bundu Gas' prospect near Graaf-Reinet.

Given that this industry is just getting started locally and the viability of potential gas fields has yet to be established, each of the two phases of the process – exploration and large-scale extraction – present particular concerns. 

The risks during exploration relate to the unintended consequences of working in unfamiliar territory, such as through losing or polluting groundwater through damaging impervious layers of rock. Fracking has been likened to the intentional production of mini-earthquakes and has even been suspended in the Arkansas USA for being linked to seismic instability. It is virtually impossible to predict what will happen if the Karoo shale formations are fracked until after the event. Once the damage is done there is no going back.

Because exploration wells are of limited extent, the risks are far lower than full commercial production of extensive gas fields, should viability be proven. It will be nearly impossible to monitor hundreds of wells, each with its own unique risks from fracking liquid, water pollution, underground instability, radioactive or other contamination, all dependent on complex geomorphology.

As yet there remains no real solution to supply the millions of gallons of precious water needed for these operations, which will in turn be polluted by fracking. Suggestions to rail in seawater or brown industrial water are ill conceived given the sensitivity of the Karoo biome and the impacts that using saline or contaminated water may have. 

Besides the physical threats of fracking in the Karoo, there is also the real impact that any such activity would have on the sense of place. Drill rigs are prominently visible, noisy (2000 HP anyone?), energy intensive and messy operations. If gas is found then pipelines, pump stations and other infrastructure will follow. As the scale of extraction increases, so do the risks.

While there are thousands of offshore oil platforms, the recent BP Horizon disaster provided us with a good example of just how wrong things can go. The proliferation of shale gas fracking in the US has taken regulators by surprise with its plethora of untoward impacts. Many fines have been issued, accidents have occurred and people have been affected. The long-term impacts remain largely unknown.

It is ironic that gas may lie in the Karoo Dwyka shale, which has provided numerous examples of early dinosaur and plant fossils of inestimable paleontological value. Fracking may simultaneously destroy our past and pollute our future.

The extraction of gas, if there is any, will be a grab that leaves little of value behind. Because of the specialised nature of this industry, few local jobs will be created. In fact local jobs may be displaced or lost as more skilled operators move into the area. The benefits to local economies will be transitory and minor, given that all material must be trucked in from distant locales. 

All the locals stand to gain is noise, dust, more traffic and the potential disruption of their lives. The only local beneficiaries may be landowners, but under our new mineral regime this will at best be a token amount. Our mineral laws also compel landowners to grant access, once the state has granted permission for extraction. Like most extractive industries, there is more take than give in this equation. 

Gas fracking is the newest kid on the block of an historically dirty and corrupt industry. It would be remiss to permit potentially catastrophic mistakes to be made in ecologically sensitive areas of our bio-diverse and water-scarce nation. It is a naïve hope that oil companies will compensate for damage, despite their promises. After all, how do you calculate the loss of something irreplaceable?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Helene Passtoors
11 Mar


Thank you, excellent!! And very well explained.

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14 Mar

Anti Fracking

Join the Facebook group "Stop SAhell Fracking in the Karoo."

The Beginners Guide to Fracking is at

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Robert de Vos
23 Mar

ANC Cronyism

The simple answer to this is...follow the money. Who stands to gain financially from BBEEE deals with negligible input.

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23 Mar

Public Meeting and Protest

There will be a public meeting held in Cape Town this week to discuss the issue of fracking in South Africa. The venue is The Sports Science Institute Cape Town, Boundary Road, Newlands (next to the WP Rugby pavilion). Friday 25 March 2011 17:00

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Theuns Botha
23 Mar


Great story well written.

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Gill Verified user
24 Mar


Well written article. Thank you. We cannot let short-term gain for a large corporate (and whoever else may be scoffing at this particular trough) ruin our country, waste our water and pollute our air

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Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen
1 Apr


Thanks. This is an accessible, educational outline of the issue, and still has critical comment. I learned lots from reading this.

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1 Apr

Yes, This Is Extremely Useful

Thank you. I really feel that I understand this issue now.

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Janice Naidoo
8 Apr

Thank You

This is the best article that I have read on this issue. I have forwarded it widely.

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