Debate in the media about the issue of fracking for natural gas in the Karoo has waned considerably since the Cabinet lifted the moratorium on September 7, giving the impression that its opponents may have lost steam. This would be a great pity because the environmental threat is larger than most people realise. The Mineral Resources Minister, Susan Shabangu, has said that if fracking harms water sources it will be stopped, and if it endangers the Square Kilometre Array project, it might be stopped, but given the government’s record of intransigence once the ANC sets its mind on a profitable venture, she leaves small reason for hope.
Trying to learn more about fracking and its effects, I met a professional based in Britain who has a lifetime of experience in energy exploration and described in greater detail than I have seen before the severity of the damage it does to the environment, especially one as delicate as the Karoo’s. Because of his sensitive position in the energy industry I cannot give his name but I can vouch for him and the detail he describes is sufficient confirmation of his authority. The most chilling fact to emerge is that the exploration for gas will do more damage than its actual extraction.This is an old driller’s perspective of shale gas drilling operations there:
“At the time of writing there are no active land rigs exploring for oil and gas in South Africa, but this is about to change, attendees were informed at the late October 2012 IADC (International Association of Drilling Contractors) Drilling Africa Conference, held in Lisbon, Portugal.
“They were also told that shale exploration in the Karoo and surrounding regions is anticipated to drive a demand for up to sixty land drilling rigs in South Africa by 2016, making South Africa one of the epicentres of land drilling activity on the African continent. Neither PetroSA nor Sasol owns land rigs capable of drilling to the required depths. So this represents a great opportunity for US and European rig contractors, manufacturers and oil service companies. It has also attracted a growing interest from the Chinese who want to have a presence and participate in the Karoo shale gas bonanza.
“Pre-drilling – Rig site construction:
Before the drilling of a single well can start a ‘rig site pad’ has to be constructed. The pad consists of an area of approximately 100 meters x 150 meters which is cleared, levelled and compacted to take the load and mass of the rig’s sub structure, derrick, mud pump, mud tanks, engines, generator hoses, fuel tanks, water tanks, drill pipe, well casing and the chemicals used to mix the drilling mud. When the rig is operating, despite the rig crew’s best intentions, spills of fuel and chemicals will occur and these could leach into the ground and can reach the water table.
Portable camps will be required to house each rig’s 30-40 workers. The construction of each of these camps involves the levelling of an area of land approximately 100 meter x 100 meter area to house the portable accommodation units. The camp also requires a water source for cooking, shower and and toilet facilities, and a refuse disposal site, which is typically a pit dug away from the camp, where refuse can be burned and buried.
Unlocking the hydrocarbons in just one shale gas well requires three million to five million gallons of water to drill from spud to fracture. (equivalent to the contents of 4.5 to 7.5 Olympic size swimming pools). It is anticipated the prohibitive cost and logistics involved in transporting such large volumes of water to the Karoo will result in the Shale Exploration Licence Operator (Shell and other companies), requiring their rig contractors to drill water wells into Karoo aquifer close to their rig sites.
“Following the initial exploration drilling phase, should the commerciality of shale gas concept be proven, as many as 1,000 wells could be drilled to exploit the gas . The drilling and completion of this amount of wells will require 3 billion to 4.5 billion gallons of water (equal to 4,500 to 7,500 Olympic size swimming pools).
“There are different types of hydraulic fracturing treatments, each involving different chemicals and acids and all will have to be treated. Likewise all of the water used in the drilling and fracking operations can (at a cost) be treated for re-use. Therefore when it comes to water treatment, it makes perfect environmental sense to use the three R’s (reclaim, recycle and reuse). Water treatment is primarily the removal of suspended solids and saline treatment. Saline, a product of old sea water embedded in the shale, can no longer be said to be untreatable, as there are now existing methods to treat saline flow back water and saline tolerant additives are available.
“Sadly, history shows that oil companies and their drilling contractors do not always prioritise protecting the environment ahead of economics, so it is important that water treatment is addressed in the exploration and development licensing.
“Drilled formation cuttings:
Approximately 350 cubic meters (350 tonnes) of drilled formation cuttings are generated during the drilling phases of a single (3000 meter deep) shale gas well.
“The responsible disposal of drilled cuttings has been an ongoing drilling industry challenge since its inception in the late 1800’s. In countries with poor environmental governance, drilled cuttings are routinely left dumped in open ‘mud and cuttings pits’ where they blight the local landscape.
More responsible Governments require an environmentally responsible approach to the disposal of cuttings.
“Two such methods are:
1. The slurryfication and re-injection of cuttings into dedicated cuttings injection disposal wells. However this is not considered to be a suitable option for the Karoo region as it requires a permeable, usually shallow formation.
2. Land farming the cuttings. This process first involves heat treating the cuttings to sanitise them. The cuttings are then spread to create thick ‘fields of cuttings’. These fields are routinely turned over and treated with chemicals, until over a period of years they degrade to produce ‘soil’ capable of being planted.
“Imagine, if you will, the 350,000 cubic meters of cuttings generated from the drilling of 1,000 commercial gas wells and the mammoth task involved in their safe and environmentally friendly disposal, to avoid creating a very negative impact on the Karoo landscape.
“Exploration drilling risks to the Karoo aquifer:
This is considered by the writer to be more serious than poor fracking practises or leaking casing cement jobs.
“During the drilling of each well’s open hole section and prior to setting the steel casing that will eventually line the well, drilling mud is in constant contact with the formation. And because it is necessary for the safety of the well to maintain a hydrostatic mud column overbalance pressure greater than the formation pressure by using a weighted drilling mud, seepage losses occur into open porous formations (such as the Karoo aquifer) as each is penetrated. These seepage losses (containing chemicals in the mud) continue and only stop only after the open hole section is successfully cased off.
“Equally, but perhaps more dangerous than chemicals seeping into the formation and Karoo aquifer, is the potential transfer into the Karoo aquifer of bacteria colonies known to flourish in every type of drilling mud. This is something that will only become evident years after drilling has stopped.
“For example: the unintentional introduction of bacteria into wells in the Red Sea in Egypt, resulted in later years in wells producing high concentrations of H2S (hydrogen sulphide) where none had existed in the early drilling phase. Hydrogen sulphide is a very corrosive compound potentially fatal to livestock and humans in concentrations above 25 ppm in air.
After a well has been completed and the rig is removed from the site, it would be logical to believe the rig site will be returned to it’s original pre-drill state. However, many rig site pads will remain un-rehabilitated, primarily because the Operator presents a convincing argument that the existing rig site may be required for future well work-overs. A work- over is a process involving the re-establishment of a rig over an old, no longer productive or a problem well to recover and replace defective down hole equipment such as leaking packers, gravel packs and corroded tubing strings, and possibly re-fracking the well if this is considered necessary to return it to a producing state.”
This depressing prospect by the British professional is aggravated by other factors in addition to the primary threat of damage to underground water resources.
One is the extent of the problem. The full licences and ancillary licences, if granted, will cover most of the Karoo, a huge area extending from the Southern Cape almost to the Botswana border.
Off the main arterial routes it is sparsely served by secondary tarred roads, most of the network being
gravel roads. These are not designed to cope with the many thousands of journeys heavy, 24-wheel trucks will have to make to carry equipment and materials into the remoter parts of the Karoo and continuously serve the operations. The licensed exploration and exploitation companies will not foot the huge cost of building or maintaining roads, which will fall on our small and already over-burdened body of taxpayers.
Picture the daily flow of traffic for just one exploration well and multiply that by one thousand then imagine the impact this will have on roads, villages, farmers and livelihoods. The Daily Telegraph reports that in DeWitt County in the US, currently hosting 21 of the rigs in operation at Eagle Ford, the county judge says he is facing a $432m (R3.5 billion) bill for road repairs and upkeep. DeWitt is home to just 20,000 people.
The entire fracking project is motivated by one thing: profit. Not national need, not service to the public, not security … just profit, which the government has already demonstrated it places above all else. If the money that goes into this could be used to develop other energy sources like the sun and the sea, gas would become irrelevant and the Karoo left intact. And we could possibly do without more coal and nuclear power stations.