WITH the oil price rising from about $90 to $115 over the
last three months and following South Africa's largest petrol price hike in 22
years, is cabinet approval for the lifting of the moratorium on shale gas
exploration really that surprising?
Fracking is a relatively simple process (described below)
and has been occurring in different forms since the mid-1950s. Apart from its
simplicity, South Africa is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions
as per global agreements. Shale gas may be the solution both to this and the
current energy deficit.
The industry also has the potential to alleviate poverty by
creating significant employment opportunities, developing new industries and
increasing foreign direct investment.
Fracking is a simple process and developing a fracking
industry has potentially significant ramifications for South Africa. So do the
positive effects not negate the negative ones: the use of large amounts of
water and the addition of chemicals into the system?
Fracking, in a nutshell, consists of the following four
1. Vertical drilling commences till a target depth is
reached, at which point the drill goes horizontal.
2. A perforating gun blows holes through the walls of the
well, creating channels for the fracking fluid (a mixture of water, sand and
chemicals) to reach the surrounding shale.
3. The fracking fluid is injected at high pressure to
fracture the shale, while the sand in the fluid keeps the cracks open.
4. Part of the fluid flows back to the surface (the amount
depends on the depth, horizontal distance and number of times a well is
fractured). The natural gas then flows up through the well.
The sand and chemical additives help to eliminate bacteria
from the water, lubricate the fracking process and prevent scale deposits that
can build up on piping and equipment; they are, therefore, essential to
effectively extracting shale gas.
South Africa cannot rely on coal forever – it is a
non-renewable source of energy – and so alternatives must be sought. Shale gas
is one such alternative.
Yet the possible trade-offs cannot be ignored. As the debate
reaches boiling point, it is interesting to note that an MIT study found that
the evidence of natural gas migration into freshwater zones was probably the
result of sub-standard well completion practices, and that hydraulic fracturing
poses no risk to groundwater.
Wells, therefore, need to be completed to the highest
quality and strictly regulated.
If shale gas exploration goes ahead, the South African
Bureau of Standards and the National Regulator for Compulsory Standards will
play pivotal roles in ensuring that Karoo fracking provides maximum economic
benefits for minimal costs, and to minimise the trade-offs South Africa faces.
* Geoffrey Chapman is a guest columnist and trade policy
expert at the SABS.
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