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Fracking raises many questions

Written by Stephen Timm
Arguably the most commonly misunderstood issue when it comes to shale gas exploration is that fracking will significantly contaminate the ground water resources of the Karoo region.

PetroSA manager of licensing and legal compliance Tebogo Motloung however says shale gas is found between 1 500 m to 4 000 m below ground surface, which is far deeper than where acceptable drinking water is located.

“The likelihood of contamination is significantly reduced due to the location of target formation and eliminated by the manner in which wells are to be constructed – i.e. cased in cement to achieve the desired well integrity.” 

In addition, he said, the technology itself allows for the use of multi-well pad drilling where a number of wells are drilled in one well thus significantly reducing the ground that might be damaged in comparison with drilling vertical wells.

What is hydraulic fracturing?

“Hydraulic fracturing”, generally referred to as “fracking”, involves injecting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into the ground to allow natural gas to flow freely from the rock pores to production wells.

What is shale gas?

Shale gas is natural gas that is attached to, or adsorbed onto, organic matter or is contained in thin, porous silt or sand beds interbedded in shale.

Are hydraulic fracturing fluids and flow-back not harmful to water resources?

Hydraulic fracturing fluid is typically made up of 99.5 per cent water and sand, and 0.5 per cent chemicals. Most chemicals are commonly used in household applications. There has been a move by the industry to reduce the use of potential toxic additives and replace them with non-toxic alternatives. The industry would be required to disclose additives to the Regulator.

Will hydraulic fracturing and shale-gas production cause any atmospheric pollution?

Compared with other sources of energy, natural gas is considered one of the cleanest energy source. The draft regulations prohibit any venting of natural gas to the atmosphere and also require operators to maximise resource recovery, thus preventing any potential impacts.

Will the process interfere with the existing land-use activities and, if so, how will these be managed?

As part of the application for exploration or production rights, applicants are required to assess the impact of proposed operations on existing land use and consult with any affected landowners. Once operations are complete, the holder is required to rehabilitate the site in such a way that future land use in the area is not compromised.

How will roads and other existing infrastructure be affected?

A traffic impact assessment will be undertaken as part of the environmental impact assessment to determine the actual effects of shale gas development and how such impacts can be mitigated, including making provisions for the maintenance of roads.

What benefits does hydraulic fracturing provide?

The extraction of a modest estimation of the Karoo’s 50 trillion cubic feet of shale gas will have a significant positive impact on economic growth, the diversification of the energy mix, employment opportunities and other benefits from multiplier activities such as manufacturing, skills development and transportation.

Has government provided sufficient mechanisms to protect communities and the environment?

The regulatory framework has been benchmarked against well developed and matured jurisdictions with over 50 years of experience, and adapted to a South Africa-specific environment. In terms of the law, companies seeking approval to develop shale gas are required to undertake comprehensive consultations with interested and affected parties, including communities.