Activist warns of dire consequences
ANTI-FRACKING activist Pat Whitfield gave an overview of the environmental and health cost of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, at her talk at the Forum for Astronomy, Science and Technology (Fast) group last Thursday.
Passionate about her subject, Whitfield said she is not a scientist or an engineer, but is from farming stock. Her talk focused on proposed fracking in the Karoo and the impact it would have on water supplies and agriculture.
“I do believe we are custodians of God’s creation and are meant to look after the earth,” she said. She said the advantages posited for fracking were job creation, and that it could make South Africa largely selfsufficient for its oil needs, as the United States had become. She outlined numerous disadvantages.
The scale of the areas designated for shale gas exploration in South Africa is vast. By 2012, four desktop permits had been granted. The first was to the Australian company Sunset Energy for a 35 000km² area in the Karoo – larger than the Kruger National Park – encompassing the towns of Cradock, Somerset East, Graaff-Reinet, Pearson and Klipplaat. Then Shell was granted a permit for an area the size of KwaZulu- Natal (90 000km²), from Sutherland in the Northern Cape to Bedford in the Eastern Cape.
The third permit was to US company Falcon Oil and Gas, for a 30 000km² area in the Eastern Cape. The fourth permit, for an 88000km² area covering parts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, was granted to a Sasol consortium including two American companies, Statoil and Chesapeake Gas and Energy. Huge quantities of water are required for fracking, which is one of the concerns about the process, particularly in the dry Karoo.
Another concern is the chemicals used in the process, which could contaminate water supplies and lead to illnesses.
“The oil companies are reluctant to divulge what chemicals they use in the fracking process,” Whitfield said, but she cited an article in New Yorker magazine, which states the likely chemicals include recognised or suspected carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde. After an outcry by scientists and people in the Karoo, the South African government put a moratorium on any physical exploration or drilling, pending an investigation of how it would affect underground and surface water.
The moratorium was lifted in 2014. Two reports, known as the Ipsos and Econometrix reports, commissioned by Shell, claim that fracking would not contaminate underground or surface water, the earth itself or drain ancient aquifers.
Whitfield said she had spoken to Ernest Pringle of Agri Eastern Cape about the impact for farmers whose land is identified for shale gas exploration.
Pringle said a 1 000ha farm could have four or five drilling rigs on it, each rig with its own small “village” fo r technical staff. In 2011, two Karoo farmers, Doug Stern and Lukie Strydom, went on a fracking fact-finding mission to the US.
They visited drill-sites in Wyoming, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Colorado and Pennsylvania and spoke to farmers there. The devastating effects on some farmers were captured in a 50/50 programme on TV. Stern and Strydom returned determined to fight any planned fracking in the Karoo or elsewhere in South Africa.
What started as farming communities’ opposition to fracking has spread to other communities, including the Khoi and San people who are now also objecting. In Graaff-Reinet, Inkwa chief Daantjie Japhta said only a handful of jobs would be created while tourism and agriculture would be threatened.
In response to growing opposition, the government instructed Falcon Oil and Gas to remove any reference to fracking in its revised environmental management plan and comment report – an admission which came from Falcon Oil and Gas CEO Philip O’Quigley.
Whitfield said further evidence of the dangers of fracking in the US, were findings by the Environmental Protection Agency that fracking contributed to depletion of water supplies in Texas; and a Pennsylvania report that found that daily water use of 2916 wells which were permitted for fracking equalled the daily drinking water requirements of one city, Pittsburgh.
Also in Pennsylvania, the state fined an energy company responsible for contaminating the drinking water of 17 farms caused by a spill of 30 000l of fracking fluid. A Time magazine article last month highlighted the correlation between fracking and an enormous increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma.
“What is happening in the US could happen here in South Africa,” Whitfield said.