A NEW study by a South African professor claims that opening up the Karoo for the extraction of shale gas using the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing will contaminate the area’s precious underground water reserves on an unprecedented scale.
The research says that even if just 10% of the proposed 22 million hectares of Karoo land were opened up for hydraulic fracturing – also called fracking – over the next 50 to 100 years, it would create 2 million hectares of cracked rock with "a very high salt load”, groundwater containing "hazardous chemicals” and underground aquifers which would probably contain radioactive material.
But despite the worrying findings, Shell South Africa said it was forging ahead with its plans.
Prof Gerrit van Tonder, of the Institute for Groundwater Studies at the University of the Free State, completed a two-month study into what effect fracking would have on the region.
He found there was an upward migration of hazardous fracking fluids into groundwater reserves. He further said cement and steel well casings would inevitably deteriorate and fail over time, leading to potential problems.
Aside from the findings that showed the dire effects on the region’s water reserves, Van Tonder said there would "also be water that has the potential to generate acid mine drainage because there is pyrite in the organic Ecca shales [sedimentary rock found in the Karoo]”.
"Even without the fracking chemicals, a very serious situation of fresh water pollution is a possibility. It is a given that the deep water in the Karoo basin wants to flow upwards and will follow pathways of least resistance,” he said.
Anti-fracking lobby group Treasure Karoo said Van Tonder’s research had confirmed its fears.
"According to his calculations, if only 1% of the cement and steel casings of wells to be drilled over the applied area were to fail, it would create thousands of pathways for upward migration to occur,” chairman Jonathan Deal said.
"It is not enough for industry to quote a period of 100 years or more for the integrity of a well. This may sound like a long time today, but is actually only the sum of two generations of South Africans.”
Shell SA spokeswoman Janine Nel said although the company was aware of Van Tonder’s research and was currently looking into his analysis and findings, Shell remained committed to the proposed project in the Karoo.
"Prof Van Tonder’s research has not been peer-reviewed which, in the case of scientific work, is standard procedure to make sure assumptions are tested,” she said.
She said the company supported an open and transparent dialogue with all stakeholders – including academia.
Nel said should the project go ahead, it could drive much-needed foreign investment, generate significant state revenues and jobs, and reduce the costs to import energy.
While the Mineral Resources Department has placed a moratorium on fracking while its task team investigates the pros and cons, Van Tonder said no one from the department had approached him concerning his research.
Department spokesman Zingaphi Jakuja said: "The department has not been notified by the professor of his study [and] therefore cannot comment on it.”