Johannesburg - South Africa's winning the rights to host the
bulk of the world's biggest radio telescope looks set to clash with plans to
use the high-pressure pumping method fracking, which can cause earth tremors,
to extract gas from its vast shale deposits.
Last week, South Africa won the rights to locate about 70%
of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a $2bn project capable of
detecting signs of extraterrestrial life in the far reaches of the universe.
The project will bring the construction of more than a
thousand highly sensitive receptors spread across hundreds of kilometres of
arid terrain in the Northern Cape province.
The area is subject to an astronomy law that prohibits
activity interfering with star gazing, which could include hydraulic
fracturing, or fracking - where drillers blast large amounts of
sand and water laced with chemicals deep underground to free natural gas and
oil from shale deposits.
"There is no decision by government on that (fracking).
We must understand the science before any licence is given, but I will use the
astronomy advantage act if necessary," Science Minister Naledi Pandor told
a news conference last week.
The Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act of 2007, meant to
bolster South Africa's bid for the array, gives the science ministry a mandate
to cut down trees, re-route air flights, silence radio signals and prohibit anything
that harms astronomy in the region.
The area is home to gas reserves now being investigated by
energy company Royal Dutch Shell and petrochemical group Sasol.
According to an initial study commissioned by the US energy
information administration, South Africa has 485 trillion cubic feet of
technically recoverable shale gas resources, most of which are located in the
The amount is the fifth-largest of 32 countries included in
the study and is pitched as a long-term solution for the energy problems of
Africa's largest economy.
"The SKA will be situated in our licence application
area," Janine Nel, a spokesperson for Shell South Africa Upstream, said.
"We will comply with legislation in this regard and
ensure that any future exploration activities we may undertake respect these
Environmentalists and other critics say fracking, which has
made available major new unconventional sources of gas and transformed the US
energy sector, can cause earth tremors and contaminate water. The process is
banned in several countries.
Independent energy industry analyst Chris Yelland said South
Africa is committed to the telescope project and it is up to scientists and
engineers to see if fracking can coexist with it.
"No one can give a definitive answer at this point on
whether it is possible," Yelland told Reuters.
About a year ago, South Africa imposed a fracking moratorium
on oil and gas exploration licences in the semi-arid region to gain time to
examine the concerns of environmentalists who say the process would ruin the
area and to study the potential gains.
Energy ministry officials were not immediately available for
The telescope project will take years to build and the
government appears in no rush to see how it will apply its astronomy law on
mining and fracking.
When completed in 2024, the telescope will be made up of 3
000 dishes, each 15 metres wide, together with many more antennae, that
together will give a receiver surface area of a square kilometre.
The bulk of the project will be in South Africa and partner
African countries. Australia and New Zealand also won the rights to host a
smaller portion of the project.
Scanning the sky 10 000 times faster and with 50 times the
sensitivity of any other telescope, it will be able to see 10 times further
into the universe and detect signals that are 10 times older.