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THE petroleum company heading calls for the Great Karoo to be opened up for the exploration of natural gas reserves through fracking has admitted it cannot guarantee the safety of its operations.
The statement, by Shell SA boss Jan Willem Eggink, comes against the backdrop of new findings by a United Nations probe into oil industry pollution in Nigeria, published last week, with particular reference to the culpability of Shell.
Shell wants to explore the Karoo for natural gas using the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing – also dubbed fracking – in which shale rock several kilometres beneath the surface is ruptured to release tightly bound gas. Fracking has been outlawed in some parts of the world because the method has been known to pollute sensitive groundwater reserves.
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At a dinner in Nelson Mandela Bay attended by The Herald last week, Eggink said Shell could not guarantee the security of its all-important well casings when fracking, but should an accident occur, cleaning up would be a simple matter.
“If things are done properly, there should not be problems ... it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be ... but I am not aware of any such problem in any of our wells anywhere in the world,” Eggink said.
Pressed on whether Shell therefore could not guarantee against well-casing failure and consequent possible water contamination, he said the chances of this failure were very slight.
“It’s a point zero zero zero possibility. ... If it was such a small chance, would you not consider going ahead?” he said.
Furthermore, if this very slight possibility became reality, the Shell well operator would be able to intervene before contamination occurred, he said.
“We can tell by monitoring pressure if there has been a leak. As soon as we realise there is one -- straight away, we insert another casing ... it’s simple.”
Shell has applied to explore for gas across a 90000ha swathe of the Karoo.
The company has in the past argued that the depth of its operations below ground level is the perfect buffer against contamination, because there would be a substantial slab of rock protecting shallower aquifers from contamination. But to get to fracking level, Eggink conceded, the vertical shaft must pass through these aquifers, which underlie large parts of the Karoo.
The shafts will be lined with concrete, but there have been a number of reports out of the US where fracking fluid -- water laced with toxic chemicals -- has escaped through failed casings and contaminated groundwater.
Asked about this, Eggink said he was not aware of any proven incident of contamination. But the failing of casings, where it had happened, was related to shoddy work by site operators. If Shell received permission to frack in the Karoo, it would use operators working to the highest standards, he said.
The results of the 14-month probe in Nigeria by the UN Environment Programme, published last week, found widescale contamination of water supplies in surface and underground catchments by pollution from oil wells. The report estimates that a clean-up would take 25 to 30 years to complete.
The report says: “Shell’s procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues.”
Amnesty International said the response “proves Shell has had a terrible impact in Nigeria but has got away with denying it for decades, falsely claiming it works to best international standards.
“One of the most serious facts to come to light is the scale of contamination of drinking water, which has exposed communities to serious health risks.”
Eggink said he and his team were keen to talk to all interested and affected parties and they were convinced fracking could take place sustainably in conjunction with other land uses like farming and tourism. He was not aware of the strong opposition to the project declared by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA).
Confirming this position, ECPTA chief executive Sybert Liebenberg said the agency was concerned about Shell’s track record in Nigeria, about the technique of fracking, about its negative effect on tourism and biodiversity, and about the impossibility of genuine site restoration in the fragile Karoo ecosystem. The project was also at odds with the policy position of the province to embrace a green economy, he said.