ANGRY residents of the Middleburg area have called for Shell to “get out the Karoo” after the company failed to guarantee the security of their water if fracking goes ahead. Addressing Shell representatives at a hall in Middelburg’s Grootfontein Agricultural College in a hall packed with farmers in T-shirts saying “Don’t Frack with our Karoo,” members of the audience asked repeatedly if the multi-national could “guarantee no risk to our water”.
Shell technical expert Tony Cortis eventually responded, “You can’t plan for every eventuality” – and earned a howl of outrage in return.
The meeting was hosted by Shell and their consultant Golder Associates as part of the public participation process to discuss the draft environmental management plan (EMP).
The report was prepared by Golder as part of Shell’s application to explore for shale gas in a 98000ha tract of the Karoo through the western, northern and eastern Cape.
At centrestage is hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the controversial method Shell says it will be using to extract the gas.
Fracking uses up to six million litres of water for each well. Laced with chemicals and other corrosion additives, it is pumped down the drill shaft, then forced at great pressure through apertures in the shaft into the surrounding shale rock bed, which can lie up to 5km below the surface. The shale fractures and releases gas which travels back up a separate shaft to be harvested as a source of electricity.
Golder facilitator Robin Housome began the meeting on a bizarre note by explaining at length to the audience how to get out the hall in an emergency, as their safety was of importance to Golder and Shell. The audience – most of whom it was clear believe Shell’s fracking could cause a real emergency – laughed incredulously.
Attorney Derek Light who is representing 200 landowners and other complainants in the matter said the draft EMP is “not worth the paper it is written on”.
“I have read through 2000 pages but there is no scientific content, no site-specific data, no facts at all, that allow us to weight the risk involved in what is being proposed, that will enable us to comment meaningfully.
“You can dress it up as pretty as you like but it does not tell the story.”
The right to explore that Shell is applying for is an invasive right, so this generic formulation of the draft EMP, around a hypothetical well and desk top studies, is fatally flawed and unlawful in terms of the landowners’ constitutional rights, he said.
Central to the “lack of detail” charge is the refusal of the company to reveal what chemicals it will be using to frack, or from where it will get the huge volumes of water required.
The draft EMP says water source options are municipal waste water, seawater that Shell would bring in by train, waste water from mines or water from dams, rivers or boreholes.
The chemicals’ issue was highlighted in the US documentary Split Estate screened by the farming community before the meeting.
In it, former senior US Environmental Protection Agency environmental engineer Weston Wilson says in an interview some of the chemicals used in the fracking liquid are “toxic to the point of injection”.
The documentary showed interviews with people who describe how their health deteriorated once fracking started near their homes, through water and air pollution. Footage showed rivers bubbling with gas which flared when lit, and how this phenomenon only started when fracking began nearby.
Asked about this, and other horrors described in the Oscar nominated fil Gasland, Cortis said, “there has been pollution.... but this has been the result of faulty installations.”
Asked to explain how the fracked gas will always percolate in a controlled way out the shaft and not through fissures widened by the fracking up into the aquifer – he told The Herald no evidence had ever showed that this could occur.
He confirmed however that not all the chemicals pumped into the ground can be extracted. Asked about the danger of long-term leaching of this fluid into aquifers, he answered once again that no tests had showed that this can occur.
Golder has recommended in its draft EMP that Shell should be allowed to proceed with exploration inclusive of up to 24 wells, but that no production right should be granted until the federal government study into fracking, underway in the US, has produced its results.
Light said it was incomprehensible that Golder could approve fracking in the exploration phase of the Karoo project but urge caution before it is introduced in the production phase.
Asked about this, project leader Brett Baxter told The Herald “stakeholders have expressed a lot of concern specifically around the production phase.
“We did consider how this applied to exploration but felt that with the limited number of wells in this phase plus mitigation measures, it was acceptable.”
A key premise of the anti-fracking lobby is that much of their groundwater is inter-linked and any contamination at even one site could quickly spread.
Donald Smiles MP earned the biggest cheer from the audience when he demanded of the Golder and Shell officials: “are you aware that the people of the Karoo do not want to deal with any risk to their water?
“The water is our treasure. It is our only thing.”