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Fracking And gas Extraction

Author: Julie Stacey-Associate: Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI) Wits, and Managing Member: Envalution cc

( Article Type: Explanation )

Energy is a key driver of development. In South Africa, 93% of our electricity is from coal, and over 85% of our total energy is from fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels is a direct contributor to climate change, through the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Lowering the carbon footprint of our energy sources is crucial to sustainable development in South Africa. Finding alternative energy sources to coal is also critical as the resource is in decline. One such source is geological gas.

 What is Fracking?

Simplistically, gas is trapped in the pores of underground rocks; in the case of the Karoo, shale. In order to extract the gas, wells are drilled; high-pressure liquid (7.5 tons per square inch) is pumped down the wells, forcing open the gaps in the rock, allowing the gas to escape. This is hydraulic fracturing, hydrofracking or fracking. The wells are lined with steel pipes and are sealed with cement to prevent leakage into the geological strata and groundwater. The fracking liquid is usually about 95% water-based, and contains fi ne sand, which packs into the opened gaps in the rock to prevent them from collapsing. The fracking liquid also contains chemicals, to help the extraction of the gas. The exact cocktail of chemicals used in fracking operations is usually not disclosed as it is regarded as being of competitive benefit. Some of the typical chemicals used include diesel fuel, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, glycol ethers, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, guar and nitrogen. The wells are drilled vertically, to depths of up to 4.5 km. Modern technology allows the drills to turn corners at depth, creating horizontal wells, up to 2 km in length, and draining 4,000 times more gas than an equivalent vertical well, making horizontal wells more efficient (according to M.J. de Wit of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University). This also significantly reduces the number of well sites (pads) located at the surface. Surface infrastructure is nonetheless considerable: local circumstances vary but hundreds of thousands of truckloads of solid and liquid materials can be needed for a 10-pad fracking well operation.***** Out of interest, Anglo American has used a type of shallow vertical hydraulic fracturing in the Waterberg for coal-bed methane operations since 2004. Importantly, the Waterberg contains a World Heritage site and is an area of high biodiversity value.

What are the Perceived Benefits of Fracking?

here are reports of high numbers of jobs created by fracking. According to a 2011 paper by D.C. Holzman, of most importance in meeting carbon reduction goals is that gas generates 50% fewer emissions than coal when burned, and 30% fewer emissions than oil. South Africa needs to transition from being entirely coal dependent for energy to renewable solutions: shale gas offers a ‘bridging-fuel’ and the time-gap needed to shift to a less carbon-intensive economy. Shale gas can improve energy security, lower the cost and price volatility of energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions if burned instead of coal.

What are the Perceived Concerns about Fracking?

Environmental and social concerns about the fracking operations relate primarily to the impact of surface infrastructure, large volumes of water use, ground- and surface-water contamination, health risks, air emissions, job creation, ability to rehabilitate and seismicity. Another concern is that a relatively clean energy source using proven technology is an ‘easy out’, and will remove focus from renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind. One of the issues relating to the Karoo is that people question the validity of exploring for gas (with resultant environmental impacts), if there is not enough gas to support a full industry. The paradox is that this can’t be determined without exploration – remote sensing techniques can only determine so much. Fracking also conflicts aesthetically with an environment such as the Karoo.***** Any seismicity caused by fracking (due to the high pressure and explosives used) has been recorded as very low - 2 on the Richter scale - which is undetectable. Even in seismic areas in the USA, no seismic activity has been recorded as resulting from fracking.
Water use for deep fracking is extremely high, requiring between 10 and 20 million litres of water for a well. It has been found however that water with high salinity is viable, and thus freshwater resources need not be targeted. Fears regarding water contamination arise largely through anecdotal evidence from the United States of America, including reports of clouding, black or grey sediments, iron precipitates, black grease, floating particles, diesel fuel or odours, rashes from bathing, reduced water flow, gassy taste, and methane in drinking water. It is important to record that in April 2011, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that most scholarly scientific studies show that fracturing fluids do not pose a threat to subsurface contamination, and that the methane in one case resulted from biogenic sources nearby. One author has gone as far as to say that poor gas well construction or design is responsible for methane contamination, not the fracking activity itself. Nonetheless, concerns about the long-term integrity of single-well casings have been expressed, especially when subjected to repeated fracking over many years, as is the norm. The possibility of the hydraulic fracture intersecting with natural fractures, with resultant migration of the fracking fluid and/or gas cannot be ignored. This is of particular relevance given that 20–40% of the fracking fluid can remain underground. The final complication in this scenario is that horizontal wells create a much higher risk for water contamination than vertical. This is significant in the water-stressed Karoo
Surface water contamination is also a risk, due to the extensive surface transport infrastructure, as well as the typical wastewater management, in which the recovered fracking liquid is stored in lined storage pits, which can be prone to leakage.
Poverty reduction is a global and national priority; the Karoo is one of the poorest areas in the country, with huge inequalities. Concerns relate to whether or not the high numbers of jobs promised will benefit local communities in any way, and whether or not the investments made can be ploughed back meaningfully and sustainably for the benefit of the people of the Karoo.

Finally, the lack of trust in the extractive industries, which are not well known for transparency, plays a significant role in creating uncertainty, and therefore resistance. The highly technical nature of the operations, its limited use outside of America, the education levels and communication options for ‘Joe-public’ in South Africa, and the massively conflicting information that is available inhibits meaningful engagement on any concerns, or indeed scientific facts. The retention of crucial information by the industry under the justification of competitiveness also fuels fears.

What Might be a Way Forward?

Many technological solutions are available to minimise the environmental risks; they will almost certainly increase operating and/or capital costs. These include:
• Using clean sand and water and nontoxic or biodegradable additives;
• Using steel holding tanks for the waste water instead of storage pits;
• Avoiding watersheds or aquifers that provide drinking water; and
• Real-time borehole monitoring using fingerprinting with tracer chemicals. The lack of trust, wide range of education levels, poor enforcement by regulators, and lack of independent sources of information create uncertainty for all involved in the fracking debate. The industry wants complete certainty on the regulatory frameworks and requirements. Stakeholders want total certainty on jobs and absolutely no environmental impacts in the sensitive Karoo. Both sides could be said to be being unrealistic; uncertainty is a fact of life.***** No single sector of society should be allowed to make the call as to whether shale gas exploitation is worth the damage to an area such as the Karoo. The industry should commit to facilitating the collection and full disclosure of systematic and independent baseline environmental and social data of sufficient quality and depth for reasonable scientific certainty and/or reduced risks. Best-available technology should also be a minimum requirement, despite the costs. Stakeholders should commit to engaging with goodwill, and accept the need for transitional solutions to a low carbon economy. Industry and stakeholders must collectively take a step back, and with as much objectivity as possible, with the greater good in mind, weigh up the short-term costs (financial as well as reversible environmental damage), with the long term benefits. This seems to be the only segue to cooperation, understanding and informed decisions. Drilling operations cannot be allowed to commence until all of these measures are in place.

Associated Organisations:

Envalution , Treasure Karoo Action Group