Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and environmental impacts explained

Submitted by: Jonathan Ramayia, Friday, June 22, 2012

The possibility of fracking for shale gas in the Karoo has come under intense scrutiny in South Africa.   Many commentators are highlighting the potential dangers of fracking while others have noted the tremendous economic benefits fracking for shale gas can bring to South Africa.  


This article explains ‘fracking’ and summarises the viewpoints relating to the implications it has for South Africa from an economic and environmental point of view.

Karoo landscape. Source: Jonathan Ramayia

What is fracking?

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing and refers to a process of drilling and use of subsequent tiny explosions to shatter and crack hard shale rock to release the natural gas contained within these rocks (shale gas). Water (hence the name hydraulic), sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure to force the gas out.
Why is fracking controversial?
Ground water contamination
Environmentalists claim that fracking causes ground water to be contaminated because of the fracking fluid and toxic chemicals that are pumped into the ground. The use of large amounts of clean water and sand mixed with a "chemical cocktail" to crack underground rocks and release the shale gas is the central cause for concern.  Many environmentalists and scientists claim that these carcinogenic and toxic chemicals escape through created or existing pathways and pollute natural ground water.
Man-made earthquakes
Apart from ground water contamination one of the main concerns about fracking is the link between fracking and increased seismic activity. Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that there was a remarkable increase of quakes in the US midcontinent since 2001 that correlates quite strongly to an increase in oil and gas production, mainly from fracking. Since then, the USGS have backtracked and made a statement to US Congress that their findings are not definitive and they were not able to recommend that fracking activity be halted altogether until further studies were undertaken.  It is believed that the earthquakes aren't caused by the fracking process to extract the gas as described above. Rather, it is the injection of wastewater produced during fracking back into the ground in order to dispose of it that has been found to be an influence on man-made earthquakes. 
Other concerns
Other major concerns include the large amount of water that is used during the fracking process. In the USA it has been estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency that 70-140 billion gallons of water have been used for fracking in 35 000 wells each year. This equates to the annual consumption of 40-80 cities with a population of 50,000 each. In a water stressed country like South Africa, this has severe impacts on water security for surrounding communities as well as other industries that depend heavily on water.
South Africa and fracking
South Africa currently has a moratorium on fracking.  However, estimates show that South Africa’s potential shale gas resource, which is concentrated in the Karoo, may be the fifth largest in the world at 485 trillion cubic feet of gas. A report conducted by Econometrix (commissioned by Shell) has also estimated that the shale gas industry could add between R80 billion and R200 billion a year to SA GDP and 300,000 to 700,000 jobs to the economy. Critics have suggested that some of these figures may be over estimated. However, even at the low end fracking could amount to a massive contribution to the economy.   
The Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu last year put in place the fracking moratorium and also established a task team consisting of relevant ministries to investigate further. The Energy Minister Dipuo Peters has since voiced her support for exploring fracking further due to its economic benefits as well as its assistance in the transition away from a coal-dependent economy. The recent awarding of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) to the Northern Cape has added a new twist with Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, warning that fracking will not be allowed to interfere with the integrity of that project. 

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Jonathan Ramayia