Gas probe plan ignites anger
Karoo residents are mounting massive opposition to Shell Oil’s proposed hydraulic fracturing for methane gas in their region, writes Anna-Marie Smith
PROPERTY owners, including farmers and residents strongly resisting the proposed exploration of the Karoo region, have resorted to legal action.
Royal Dutch Shell and Bundu Gas and Oil Exploration have submitted applications to the Petroleum Agency of SA (PASA) for fracking of shale gas in the Karoo, with interest shown by Sasol, Anglo American and Falcon Oil and Gas.
Prominent Karoo residents, including Johann Rupert, have joined forces in pointing out the potential infringement of environmental and community rights, as well as water pollution danger.
Princess Irene of the Netherlands, who owns the Boplaas Reserve in the Karoo, has voiced her concerns publicly.
Most crucially, concerns are about dangers to underground water sources and the potential of water tables possibly becoming damaged, draining away scarce underground water.
While those in opposition of this action realise that it is early days yet with much information still to be provided, growing concerns relate to Shell’s proposed method of drilling. Hydraulic fracturing — colloquially called fracking — is an unregulated mining practice in SA that not only requires both vertical and horizontal drilling, but also highpressure blasting of large quan- tities of water, chemicals and sand as far as 3 000m below the surface into rock formations.
Derek Light, a lawyer repre- senting Karoo land owners, said: “We are very concerned about the environmental impact, especially because fracking is not regulated in SA.” Light said farmers were worried about the sensitivity of the underground water systems on which the Karoo is totally dependent, should any contamination take place.
Mark Botha, head of conservation at environmental group WWF SA, recently said: “We’ve got some serious concerns about fracking; it is as yet an unproven technology with unacceptable risks for fresh-water abstraction and pollution.”
Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), a newly formed representative body co-ordinating the concerns of stakeholders, has challenged PASA regarding the proposed granting of licences for the extraction of shale gas from the Karoo basin.
Jonathan Deal, of TKAG, said a systems ecologist and policy analyst representing Golder, the environmental agency appointed by Shell, recently confirmed that “the Karoo economy will not survive gas mining”.
Deal says evidence of severe environmental and community health damage caused by the same mining method in the US as a result of the cumulative impact of toxic spills from frack waste water, has been seen. Pensylvania environmental experts say drilling close to water sources has seen severe contamination of domestic water, an increase in traffic due to the trucking of waste water, or, as proposed by Shell, the trucking in of seawater, which, if leaked, would transform the Karoo into a wasteland.
Shell last week stated that it “would implement in our project any relevant recommendations that may arise from a study of hydraulic fracturing by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is currently under way and will continue until 2014.”
However, Deal says New York State in the US had placed a moratorium on fracking last December, with France taking the same action last week. Although Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu placed an indefinite moratorium on the processing of all new exploration and production rights in the Karoo earlier this month, it does not apply to applications already submitted.
Last week Shell stated: “The Karoo is a special place for South Africans. We must preserve it for our future and our children’s future. As South Africans we must also secure a sustainable energy future, reducing our dependence on coal by using more environmentally friendly options available such as natural gas.”
TKAG representative Glen Ashton says: “Shell has pledged to use ‘green chemistry’ and to provide full disclosure of all chemicals it proposes to use.”
He says even ostensibly respectable corporations like Shell have poor historical track records, and their role of exploitation and environmental catastrophe in Nigeria is particularly damning.
Wayne Rubidge, Pam Golding Properties manager Karoo, says the semi-desert historical Karoo region of 52 towns is popular with nature lovers due to its natural lifestyle that is free of pollution and over-development.
Rubidge says high demand for vacant land has impacted positively on property prices, and two game farms of 3 000ha and 7 000ha recently fetched about R3 300m². Prince Albert and Graaff Reinet have the highest residential property prices in the region, with middle-income homes from R750 000, restored historical homes from R1,4m and top properties from R2m to R2,8m.
Local resident Johan Minnaar says that long-term sustainability of both the environment and tourism in the area can only take place through preservation of the land for future generations by communities who are mindful of their assets.
Karoo houses for sale.
An aerial view of the Karoo landscape.