It’s a hard life for farmers who have lived for generations in the Karoo, South Africa’s vast expanse of nothing. Every day, they fight cutting winds and soaring temperatures in bone-dry valleys to nurture their stock. To the visitor, the Karoo is a barren place between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Here the communities are small, Twitter is scarce and there are more goats than people. Soon there could be more rumbling trucks than goats.
This is all because of a mining method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It’s been hailed a savior of the United States (US) economy, during the 2008 recession, making it one of the largest producers of natural gas in the world. It is now on its way to South Africa, because the government and oil and gas companies believe, beneath the Karoo, lies an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas; enough to fuel the country’s economy for up to 20-30 years. It could also bring $100 billion and thousands of jobs.
For some, like Harry Memese, who grew up in the small town of Graaff Reinet, in the heart of the Karoo, the sound of thousands of trucks full of gas grinding along the highways could be music to his ears.
“I have worked as a petrol cashier for eight years, there is no job other than that in Graaff Reinet. The people are suffering. There are 30 youths here where I live, and only two of them are working in my street. Fracking is going to help the people get jobs. If you look around our townships, like here in Graaff Reinet, and the rest of the Eastern Cape, people are not working. Fracking is supposed to bring in 300,000 more jobs. At least there is something that people can earn earn,” says the 33-year-old.
Grey hair, from a life harder than the land he grew up in, makes Memese look older than he is. His life is a struggle and the $420-a-month he earns is barely enough to feed his wife, children and younger brother. The promise of fracking could mean a new lease of life for his family. He dreams of seeing his 19-year-old brother Ayanda one day qualifying as an electrical engineer on a fracking well.
No one really knows how much shale gas is in the Karoo. When estimates emerged in 2010, Econometrix, South Africa’s largest independent macro-economic consulting firm, believed there was 485 tcf, enough to make South Africa the fifth largest producer in the world.
But these days the figure has been downsized. Another task team set by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), in September 2012, spearheaded by the Petroleum Oil and Gas Corporation of South Africa (PetroSA), believes there is a mere 30 tcf.
No matter the figure, companies want to explore. Shell, the largest bidder in the Karoo, wants to frack 90,000 square kilometers – the size of Sierra Leone.
“It’s a potential resource. It certainly can be a big player. Scientists initially thought it was 485 tcf but the latest from the same people is 370 tcf. If you listen to petroleum companies, it could be fractions of that. To put things into scale, PetroSA has been running on 1 tcf for their gas to liquid plant in Mossel Bay. The challenging thing for South Africa is the environmental impact and the regulations,” says Chris Bredenhann, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ oil and gas advisory leader in Africa.
Bredenhann thinks natural gas may have captured investor interest, but Africa has its challenges. In his company’s 2014 Africa oil and gas review, companies operating in Africa face fraud, corruption, theft, poor infrastructure and a lack of skills. Investors are also concerned about regulatory uncertainty.
“Some key players have delayed or canceled projects until further clarity can be sought in their respective jurisdictions as they cannot move forward with doubts given the long-term nature of the needed investments,” says Bredenhann.
According to the report, Africa has proven natural gas reserves of 502 tcf, with 90% of the continent’s annual production of 6.5 tcf coming from Nigeria, Libya, Algeria and Egypt. China has an estimated 1,115 tcf, the largest supply of shale gas. With African countries like Mozambique looking to exploit reserves, the competition for sales and investment is tough.
“There is also the fact there is tight international competition. Asia, who is the main consumer of gas, is being fed by the United States and the likes of Australia who managed to set up their operations far faster than expected. It means companies operating out of Tanzania and Mozambique, who have met various delays in operations, will lose out as the price decreases in a competitive market,” says Bredenhann.
Falling prices could spell disaster for the up-and-coming countries looking to sell their surplus gas.
“The sentiment of Africa being open is applicable to South Africa. Total, Chevron and Shell have made investments offshore. If you had this conversation five years ago this would have been a different conversation,” says Bredenhann.
The only certainty for those who want to frack, is that they have a fight on their hands.
Rallying The Cheques
In a year, the fighting fund for farmers in the Karoo has swollen.
A sure sign that the gloves are off.
Like his fellow 3,000 farmers, Dickie Ogilvie won’t let fracking vie without a fight. Ogilvie gave up teaching to help his wife, Colleen, take over her brother’s farm, Doorndraai, 100 kilometers south west of Graaff Reinet. His fears have led him to pledge R3 for every hectare on his 14,000 hectare farm to fight fracking in court. Most farmers across the Karoo are as trenchant as him.
“Some guys have given a lump sum payment. Most of the other moneys are per hectare basis, the pledge varies from R1 a hectare to R10 ($1), depending how strongly a farmer feels. There is a lot of money to fight this if it goes to litigation process. Farmers have realized now how serious this can be,” says Ogilvie.
“Our resolution from the Aberdeen district is dire. I don’t believe they understand that if something goes wrong the Karoo is finished. You cannot rectify the water contamination, once it’s been contaminated it’s over, we will have to move off. It’s not only farms; the towns rely on underground water. My small little family can make a plan, but we are talking about whole communities in towns. It’s a huge problem, no answers are given, there is so much uncertainty.”
The fierce litigation between big business and the Karoo’s landowners has been brewing since 2009, when fracking explorations were stopped to allow for regulations. Landowners locked horns with government over the lack of consultation and what they call flawed laws and uninformed environmental assessments.
Their lobbying has seen some results, says Derek Light, the small-town lawyer from Graaff Reinet. The small offices he works in have been consumed by fracking for three years. Light even took a cell phone when he went for hip surgery so he wouldn’t miss anything. He represents hundreds of landowners, including millionaire Johann Rupert, the second richest man in Africa, who lives around the corner.
In September, four years after the first applications were submitted, baseline water testing began. The study, researched by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and financed by the Eastern Cape provincial government, looks at the Karoo’s underground water system.
“Baseline testing is not done overnight, it’s a long process that takes two to three years. The timing of it has been poor, and it is something the oil companies should have done in their environmental management plan process, which they failed to do. It’s now being done by the taxpayer. The government should have had this information at their disposal when they first made their decisions on the whole process,” says Light.
He adds that the government jumped the gun. Drafts, issued in 2013, were flawed and focused on regulating fracking while forgetting about the mining operations around it, says Light.
“Drilling in South Africa is not regulated at all. Shell and other companies feed off the fact that there are few documented cases of contamination from the actual fracking process. Because the wealth of contamination comes from the other process, you can’t divorce the one from the other.”
Another loud and stringent voice against fracking is that of Jonathan Deal, CEO of Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG). Strangely enough, he didn’t know about fracking until he read a news article in 2011 when Rupert was speaking out against it.
“I began to investigate and attended the Shell public meetings. It was very clear to me that Shell was trying to control the meetings. There was a very specific aim in those meetings and it wasn’t to tell the truth as far as I was concerned,” says Deal.
From his 40,000-hectare Eco-farm near Montagu, in the Karoo, Deal has been calling on the Presidency, the Public Protector and gas companies to revise their actions before fracking takes place. He’s not alone; Julius Kleynhans, the Head of Environmental Affairs at the NGO AfriForum, has declared it will back TKAG financially should it go
“It is the balance of convenience. If companies and the state have invested enormous amounts of money and the public sits and watches what happens and wait for everything to be built and then goes and complains. It’s very difficult for a court to literally throw its investments away.”
“If something goes wrong with a fracking well ten years later and those chemicals migrate 30 kilometers away, even if a farmer ends up with polluted water, what chance has he got of proving that it was from that well… if people get sick from air and water pollution, like what is being happening in the United States, who is going to pay for it? The state is; the people who pay tax. Not the companies that have shut down their operations when they have moved on somewhere else,” says Deal.
It’s not just a Karoo problem, says Deal.
“If fracking starts in this country and the gas reserves are there. We will see the technology of fracking march across this country just like it did in the United States. Geologically speaking the Karoo basin is where the gas bearing shale is thought to reside, and that extends into Gauteng and parts of Mpumalanga. In fact it extends out of the northern borders of South Africa.”
Despite plans to halt explorations until proper research is completed, the government remains adamant it will go ahead and be a game changer.
“New regulations should be released in September, but we don’t yet know what they contain. All of this has happened without consultation. It seems what will happen are inadequate regulations will be passed, with inadequate consultation. We are then faced with serious decisions where we go from there. If the regulations are unlawful, that may have to be challenged in the Constitutional Court. It seems, from the ministers announcements, hot off the heels of the new regulations will be the issuing of licenses which seems to indicate government has already taken a decision on those, which should not be granted because they don’t comply with the new laws,” says Light.
The impact of exploration could be catastrophic, says Deal, especially since companies refuse to disclose the chemical composition of the additives. Chemical additives make up 1% of the 20 million liters used for a well. On one pad there can be 32 wells.
“With exploration, the same risks are there, they have to frack to see if it’s there. Don’t come to this country and look for secrecy privileges. Don’t come and try hide behind commercial interests to hide the mix of chemicals, this is not America,” says Deal.
“The minute these licenses are issued, these corporates are going to carry on with what they want to do anyway. It’s going to be challenged. People are well aware of it. The minute those licenses are issued, they will be challenged,” says Ogilvie.
Landowners seem to be putting their money where their mouth is. One wonders what people across Africa, who don’t have money will do.
What’s The Problem?
Independent geologist, Wlady Altermann, believes fracking fears are full of hot air.
Imagine a rock with thousands of pockets. Then imagine you have to drill, thousands of times, to release the gas from these pockets. This is what the Karoo looks like underground and the amount of drilling needed could make fracking costly, says Wlady Altermann, a geologist at the University of Pretoria.
“All the knowledge of these compartments and the distribution of pockets are very poor. [The Karoo] would require a very good geophysical investigation. After that, the drill hole positions need to be drilled to investigate the properties of the rock, the stability of the composition and the wealth of the gas. Only after that, can a decision be made as to the wealth of the shale gas,” says Altermann.
The German- born professor knows a thing or two about rocks. Apart from studying them since he was a child, Altermann spent years studying rocks from Mars. Space travel was out of the question so Altermann flew across the globe and has been studying mineral deposits in South Africa since the 1980s.
Altermann, now the Kumba-Exxaro Chair in Geodynamics of Ore Deposits at the university, believes that fracking is harmless if it’s done properly.
“The misconceptions are basically based on poor information. It comes from the direct comparison with the United States, which I think is not comparable. Secondly, it comes from the perceptions that the surface and the shallow subsurface have something to do with shale gas deposits. Shale gas deposits are much deeper.”
“The fracking itself is such a tiny part of the entire process. It’s not the dangerous part of the process. The dangerous part of the process is the later methods of production. Fracking itself, I think, it’s the wrong discussion,” says Altermann.
Water contamination by drilling through the Karoo’s aquifers, 300 meters below the surface, is also unlikely says Altermann, because the distance between the underground water and the shale gas is far.
“The shale in the United States is at much shallower levels. Between 1,000-1,500 meters. The deeper you go, the less the risk of contamination. The pressure in the ceiling holds the gas better. The chance to contaminate groundwater through that type of production is so low; you really must act like an idiot to do this. It’s not impossible but if it’s done properly, there’s no problem,” he says.
The fracking process has made significant technological steps since it began 70 years ago, says Altermann. Wells can be spaced further apart because drilling horizontally can stretch for 5 kilometers. Ten years ago, that same reach was a kilometer.
The risk lies with the waste after fracking. Companies in the US have been guilty of reusing this water to save costs, instead of disposing of it.
“This is what causes most of the problems. In other countries, it is forbidden, there are environmental laws. That should be avoided in South Africa as well, controlled in a way that you can be sure nothing happens,”
Natural gas is a greener fossil fuel than coal, says Altermann.
“South Africa’s energy demand is expected to increase by 60% up to 2050. Coal cannot supply it; if coal supplied it we would sit in darkness and not see our beautiful sunsets under the African sun. At today’s state of technology, the best way to mitigate climate change and CO2 emissions, the cheapest thing technically is to switch from coal to gas combustion. It reduces CO2 emissions by 50%. It’s a much more effective way of producing energy,”
“People talk about fracking and groundwater; no one realizes that actually in many areas where groundwater is scarce, where there is not enough water to supply the population, fracking is used to extract groundwater. They frack the rocks, the aquifer, without chemicals with just water and sand and crack the rocks, so that water can flow out the cracks easier. It is used by many countries especially in sub-Saharan Africa.”
According to the professor, fracking could change the face of South Africa and not cause too much worry.
Last Gasp For Eden
It’s a small corner of the Karoo: a corridor of private land that stretches 300,000 hectares from the Camdeboo National Park, in Graaff Reinet, east to the Mountain Zebra National Park. It took 66 farmers over three years to buy into this project that promises a Garden of Eden teeming with wildlife. It could become known as the last piece of untouched land in the Karoo if fracking begins.
“The first meeting in Graaff Reinet was a little tense. I think a lot of the landowners thought we were going to attempt a big land purchase and buy out hundreds of thousands of hectares. Also, I think they were a bit worried that we were going to tell them what they had to do on their own land. Once this was clarified, there was little problem,” says Matthew Norval, the Director of the Conservation Programme at the Wilderness Foundation.
The corridor project is the brainchild of Norval, in collaboration with South Africa National Parks (SANParks). He wants to create a reserve for future generations.
“The farmers in this area have looked after the land for many generations, some of them are third and fourth generation. The reason you can build a natural corridor in that region is because the land has been so well looked after and is still in good condition and there is a strong affinity from the farmers who own that land,” says Norval.
The application is with the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa.
“Fracking raised its head at almost the same time we started working in that area. There is no doubt that it influenced the way we worked and the way some of the landowners decided how to collaborate with us. I think fracking hit a lot of the landowners, sort of right between the eyes. They suddenly realized that properties that had been in their families for generations were now under threat. It was possible their land would get damaged and their children or their children’s children wouldn’t be able to make a livelihood from farming. You have to bear in mind its prime natural rangeland grazing for sheep and cattle,” says Norval.
“I think it would be near impossible to rehabilitate the Karoo after fracking. In some areas, to a layman it may look like gravel plain. Somebody that doesn’t understand the intricacies of that ecosystem might just assume you can level it and there you go. But it’s not like that.”
“This is our last gasp. Never mind rhino, we’re losing lion; we’re losing pangolin by the ton. When it comes to land, the opportunity to build corridors and create landscapes that are going to have some relevance in the future, this is our last chance. ”
Over to the minister.