Shale shocked in the Karoo Basin

Oil and gas companies are queuing in line for exploration licenses to search for shale gas in the Karoo region. Residents of the Karoo (and more recently – wider South African population) are concerned about the unproven shale gas extraction methods that could be harmful to the environment and contaminate underground water.

About shale gas and its extraction from the Karoo

Shale gas is a natural gas produced from shale, a sedimentary rock composed of mud that is a mix of flakes of clay minerals. Farmers and residents are mainly concerned with the extraction method, which is called hydraulic fracturing or fracking. During the extraction of shale gas, deep drilling is used to penetrate the ground until shale rock is struck. Chemicals, water and sand are blasted into the holes, fracturing the shale and releasing natural gas from it. Shell, Sasol, Anglo American, Falcon Oil and Gas, and Bundu Gas and Oil Exploration, are among those eyeing shale gas in the region.

The Petroleum Agency South Africa (PASA) awarded Royal Dutch Shell a TCP (Technical Co-operation Permit) for a one-year study to determine the hydrocarbon potential in parts of the Karoo Basin in 2009. In 2010, the company secured a permit to explore for shale gas over 185000km² in the Karoo, which means that more confrontations between communities and companies will continue.  According to the law, the residents in the area own their land but not the minerals beneath them.

We are very concerned about the environmental impact, especially because fracking is not regulated in South Africa,´ said Derek Light, a Graaf-Reinet lawyer representing a number of Karoo land owners and interested parties.

 “It would be pretty naive if we weren’t concerned because if it happens, it’s the end of our livelihood – not only ours, but all the people we employ as well,” said Princess Irene, sister of
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who owns Boplaas Nature Reserve in the Karoo. Princess Irene spoke to Carte Blanche (the programme aired on 20 February 2011). Unlike some of the Dutch royal family, Princess Irene does not own a stake in the oil giant Shell and she is vocal about her opposition to shale gas exploration in the area.

Light successfully opposed the last two exploration applications by Bundu Oil & Gas, adding that the legal process was failing the farmers and residents of the area. Carte Blanche reported that applicants have 120 days to inform and consult the public and come up with an Environmental Management Plan for a technique on-one fully understands. But the public, spread out on isolated Karoo farms, have only 30 days to respond.

Activists and opposition

In February, an action group called the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) was formed by community members and land owners. TKAG issued a press release calling on all the current applicants to withdraw their applications for licenses to pursue shale gas mining in the Karoo.

We further call on the Ministers of Water and Environmental Affairs and other ministries including Public Works and Tourism to become urgently and publicly involved in this issue of critical environmental importance, on the basis that the effects of fracking have the potential to permanently damage the Karoo environment,” said TKAG spokesperson and Karoo landowner Jonathan Deal. A Facebook group called “chase SHELL OIL out of the Karoo!” has also been created, with members of Earthlife commenting on the page. By the end of February, over 2000 people also signed the “Stop Fracking in the Karoo” page on Thepetitionsite.com.
 

Gasland documentary

Gasland, an Oscar-nominated documentary about fracking, highlights the aftermath that the messy gas drilling technique is having in the US (where the process is under fierce government scrutiny and has been banned by over 160 communities in America). The film begins and ends in Dimock, a rural area of Susquenhanna County, where methane starts to spill out of kitchen sinks and catch fire after Cabot Oil & Gas Co. start drilling wells nearby. The director of the film, Josh Fox, then begins his search to discover what shale gas drilling in America is doing to the environment and what unexpected consequences the technique may have on people.

 “In most cases, the extent of environmental disasters only becomes apparent in hindsight, when it’s too late. On precious few occasions do we get an inkling of what environmental impact an activity is like to have because others have done us the dubious favour of acting as guinea pigs,” writes Andreas Spath, maanger of Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre and regular columnist on News24.
 
The liveeco team

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