Exploration only way to ensure honesty in shale gas debate
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