Ex­plo­ration only way to en­sure hon­esty in shale gas de­bate

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - TONY LEIMAN

THE WIDE­SPREAD op­po­si­tion to gas ex­plo­ration in the Ka­roo is in­trigu­ing for the ba­sic premise on which it rests: that if the cost of in­for­ma­tion is un­cer­tain some peo­ple would rather be ig­no­rant than in­formed when mak­ing an im­por­tant de­ci­sion.

This is not to say that those op­pos­ing frack­ing are wholly in er­ror; pub­lic aware­ness forces de­ci­sion­mak­ers to ap­ply their minds, which is surely good. But to rep­re­sent the pub­lic hon­estly and well, de­ci­sion­mak­ers need to col­lect and process much in­for­ma­tion. In the case of the shale gas de­bate much of this in­for­ma­tion can only come from con­tin­ued ex­plo­ration.

Care­fully mon­i­tored ex­ploratory drilling can help an­swer three pri­mary ques­tions for de­ci­sion­mak­ers. Are there payable quan­ti­ties of nat­u­ral gas un­der the Ka­roo at all? If so, how safe would com­mer­cial ex­trac­tion be? And, should any payable gas be ex­tracted now or in the fu­ture?

It is im­por­tant to em­pha­sise that we don’t know if payable gas ex­ists in the Ka­roo shales. Op­ti­mists talk of vast de­posits, pes­simists doubt any­thing more than iso­lated pock­ets. While the state has nei­ther the bud­get nor the skills to ex­plore the area, the firms which hold prospect­ing rights rou­tinely search the globe. Some­times they find gas, more of­ten they don’t. If they draw a blank in the Ka­roo, the prob­lem will die away and the land will re­main un­al­tered. If they find payable gas, the min­is­ter’s per­mis­sion will be needed be­fore ex­trac­tion be­gins. While it will be dif­fi­cult for her to refuse, she will have the weight of South Africa’s much-im­proved min­ing leg­is­la­tion be­hind her, which not only pe­nalises pol­lu­tion, but re­quires that money be set aside for clean-up once ex­trac­tion is com­plete.

How dam­ag­ing could ex­plo­ration be? Shell has ap­plied to drill be­tween six and 24 ex­ploratory bores in the cen­tral Ka­roo. To test for com­mer­cial prospects they will need to frac­ture the shale beds they find, ei­ther with wa­ter (hy­draulic frac­tur­ing) or with foam. Can this af­fect the lo­cal wa­ter ta­ble? Yes, though the geo­phys­i­cal sur­veys re­quired by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pact Agency con­ducted for each bore will re­duce the risk. Any im­pacts on lo­cal wa­ter will be ob­vi­ous close to the bore. Since wa­ter tests are re­quired be­fore, dur­ing and long af­ter drilling, com­par­i­son of re­sults will in­di­cate the risks that sub­se­quent com­mer­cial gas ex­trac­tion in the area could pose to un­der­ground wa­ter.

And if there is payable gas down there, what next? Will we have opened Pan­dora’s box or will the Ka­roo be­come our El­do­rado? Much will de­pend on the scale of any finds. Enough to keep Mos­sel Bay’s gas-to-liq­uid plant go­ing would be a help; enough to re­place age­ing coal fired gen­er­a­tors and pro­vide cheap, clean elec­tric­ity would be won­der­ful. But if the de­posits are large the out­come will de­pend on what’s done with them. This point was stressed by the late Tony Twine of Econometrix, who ar­gued that gas would achieve far less if ex­ported than if used pro­duc­tively at home.

There is no doubt that the Ka­roo should be trea­sured; so should all of our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments. A trip over any scenic pass in the Western Cape, its road verges and lay-bys re­plete with bro­ken bot­tles, pa­per wrap­pers and plas­tic trash, shows in the sim­plest way that many South Africans nei­ther care for oth­ers nor for their en­vi­ron­ment. But we ex­pect more of our de­ci­sion­mak­ers.

So what threat­ens the Ka­roo? Is it gas ex­plo­ration or over­graz­ing, fall­ing wa­ter ta­bles, habi­tat trans­for­ma­tion or global cli­mate change? While one can make a case for each, the big­gest threat is surely poverty. A trav­eller through any small Ka­roo set­tle­ment soon sees how im­me­di­ate needs have re­placed long- term plans. If gas can bring wealth and jobs to the Ka­roo, as it did to the pre­vi­ously de­pressed plains of North Dakota, then it may ben­e­fit rather than dam­age the en­vi­ron­ment.

Should gas found be ex­ploited now or saved for pos­ter­ity? Some sug­gest im­port­ing nat­u­ral gas from Mozam­bique, or us­ing coal- bed meth­ane from Botswana or Zimbabwe but the fi­nan­cial and eco­log­i­cal costs of both would be pro­found. Some ar­gue that cheap lo­cal gas will dis­place re­new­able en­ergy and that this should weigh against it. In re­ply, mod­u­lar gas tur­bines are not only cheaper than wind or so­lar power, they can pro­duce base load, and peak load power on de­mand, while be­ing cleaner and less car­bon­in­ten­sive than coal. Un­til re­new­able en­ergy is cost ef­fi­cient, de­fer­ring the use of lo­cal gas will im­pov­er­ish South Africans.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of min­ing have al­ways been prob­lem­atic, and South Africa’s ex­pe­ri­ence has not been good, so why should shale gas min­ing be any dif­fer­ent? One rea­son is the leg­is­la­tion now in place. It is first-class. But there is a se­ri­ous caveat; any set of rules can only work as well as those that mon­i­tor and en­force it. Who guards the guardians? The great­est en­forcers are an aware me­dia and a con­cerned pub­lic. Iron­i­cally, it is the laud­able suc­cess of the Trea­sure Ka­roo Ac­tion Group that of­fers the great­est hope for safe shale gas prospect­ing in the Ka­roo.

Pro­fes­sor Leiman is at the Univer­sity of Cape Town’s School of Economics

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