Controversial Karoo shale gas exploration tackled at NMMU lecture

SEPTEMBER 15, 2016

Shale gas exploration in the Karoo may be a contentious and controversial issue, but South Africans – especially in and around the Karoo – may just have to brace themselves for what appears to be an inevitable move.

However, before such a move, many important questions need to be answered and multiple factors taken into account – chief of which is the possible impact of such a move on the region’s indigenous people.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) researchers – made up of a trans-disciplinary mix of postgraduate students and professors – have been looking into possible shale gas development (SGD), with a multimillion rand baseline study spearheaded by the university team showing that the resource can be found all the way from Bhisho to Cradock.

At a public lecture hosted at NMMU, in conjunction with the South African Academy of Engineering (SAAE) and titled “Karoo Dilemmas: Prospective Shale Gas Development in the Karoo – What is the Outlook?”, Earth Stewardship Sciences Chair Professor Maarten de Wit highlighted the multifaceted nature of the proposed project. SGD has been met with much resistance from the community and other interest groups, while government pushes for its advancement.

The baseline study – which is essentially recording a snap shot of the Karoo region prior to any fracking, if it does materialise – is a necessary monitoring and evaluation tool before, during and after fracking.

“Baseline studies are part of a critical first phase towards the development and capacitation of a robust monitoring and evaluation programme for upstream and downstream gas development in the Karoo,” Prof De Wit said.

“Central to the rationale for a Karoo baseline study then, is the need for effective monitoring before, during and after hydraulic fracturing.”

Prof De Wit said the absence of baseline studies elsewhere in the world have made it difficult to distinguish between ambient pollution and incremental pollution from shale gas activities.

He stressed that the University was not necessarily advocating Shale Gas Development, but that data collected from the work done by the team so far suggested that there was a good chance that it will happen, with the baseline study linked to precautionary principles that raise any ‘worst case scenarios’ ahead of time.

“In absence of baseline data, effective regulation of the sector will not be possible. Otherwise, the oil companies that will be manning the project can easily say that whatever problems arise were there before.”

The Shale Gas Baseline Research programme – part funded by the Eastern Cape government (R16-million) and Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) at NMMU (R15-million) – essentially links engineering, science and technology and humanities.

The study, done by about 30 postgraduate students across multiple disciplines, aims to ensure complete readiness for Shale Gas Development in the southeastern Karoo through a transdisciplinary approach to research that looks at water, land, atmospheric and community issues

One of the key parts of the study, Prof De Wit said, are the people, many of whom were in the dark about the high tech project that could possibly run on their doorsteps.

“This is about ensuring that people remain at the centre of everything we do, through social participation, stakeholder engagement and citizen science,” Prof De Wit said.

“One of the things we learnt was that people wanted to be kept informed because there is quite a huge level of mistrust. So this is to look into what this would mean for the people – the first nation people [Khoisan] and the second nation Xhosa community as well as the farmers.

For farmers, water contamination issues are high on the priority list, while job opportunities are a major concern for the communities that have been moved from farms to rural townships, where unemployment is rife.

“There are also land ownership issues as part of the area is on land that was once a township of more than 100 families and is currently under land claims.”

Prof De Wit said for purposes of the study, which has also highlighted a science and technology (S&T) skills shortage at universities, the aim was to build a controlled drilling site in the middle of the Karoo that would essentially be a “unique laboratory”.

“We need to have a lot of S&T in our universities because we can’t handle this. And the way we want to do that is to go into this area and build what we call a controlled drilling or fracking site. It is high-tech and in a sense, we are trying to create a Silicon Valley in the middle of the Karoo, where we can have high-tech drilling and high-tech zones around that,” he said.

“So it would be a sort of drilling technology hub that we don’t have anywhere else in Africa, where students can learn about drilling. This will essentially be a sort of NMMU technical drilling college.

“If we manage that, we would have the first highly trained SGD experts from NMMU becoming available for employment in early 2017.”

Present at the lecture on Wednesday night were Khoisan chiefs from the Karoo region, led by Chief of the Eastern Cape Khoisan Community, Margaret Coetzee Williams, who lauded the NMMU researchers for taking into account the “forgotten people” of the area during their study.

Image: NMMU’s Prof Maarten De Wit (front right) and Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Engagement Prof Andrew Leitch (left) look on as Eastern Cape Khoisan Chief Margaret Coetzee Williams thanks the NMMU Shale Gas Baseline Research programme for considering their plight.