Dirty Fracking water

In the last few months South Africans have been re-introduced to the reality of fracking in the Karoo. In early September the Cabinet approved the lifting of a moratorium imposed in February last year (2011), allowing licences for the exploration of shale gas in the country to be issued under certain circumstances. Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu did however say that the government will stop the exploration of shale gas in South Africa’s Karoo region if it is found that hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” poses any risk to the water table or to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project.

The US Energy Information Administration has estimated that South Africa’s Karoo Basin contains a technically recoverable resource of 485-trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to secure South Africa’s energy independence for many years into the future. Under the Cabinet decision, the actual fracking cannot be done now, even though exploration will involve some drilling, said Shabangu. When it comes to fracking it helps to assess the history of this type of gas drilling to date and few documentaries tell the story of fracking in America like Gaslands. This moving documentary discusses the experience of Americans with fracking over the last 10 years and clearly concludes that ground water is being heavily polluted by the core fracking fluids used. It seems clear that the discussion around fracking is far from over but when examining the reasons why the South African government is pushing to go ahead two key motivations are used, firstly that it will create a R1 trillion boom for the economy over the next 20 to 30 years and secondly that as part of this boon we will get energy security and a huge boost in job creation in these areas. Shell alone has mentioned that their fracking operations could create as many as 300,000 jobs if it’s granted a license to frack the Karoo.

Let’s examine the question of energy security and job creation. From an energy security perspective Eskom has committed to almost doubling its capacity over the next 15 years to meet growth in demand from South Africans. Most of this energy growth will take the form of coal and nuclear facilities with a limited portion going towards renewable energy. Why renewable energy is not a significant part of the future of South Africa only Eskom knows but it’s clear that we will continue to abuse our coal resources well into the future at the expense of accessing clean power options. Often the reason given is the cost of producing coal power when juxtaposed with renewables. While this is a relevant fact it does not take into account the significant impact of this option environmentally or the opportunity for huge job growth through the creation of a renewable industry in South African that could become a major export. These costs and opportunities need to be accurately quantified before a true cost computation can be made on the best energy mix going forward. Not only is a study required that reflects on the energy needs of our country, but also properly reconciles our future energy, social and economical development /diversification needs

Terra Firma Academy estimates that job growth in South Africa over the next 15 years around renewable energy and energy efficiency could be into the millions if the government put its mind and money towards cutting wasteful energy consumption through maximising efficiencies and creating an energy efficiency and renewable energy manufacturing sector. For example, rather than allowing the cheap importation of Chinese’s Solar panels the government should subsidize local glass (PG Glass/National Glass) and wafer manufacturers to build our own capacity and manufacturing industry. Government protection and capital incentive schemes is key to establishing this industry which could replace the need for fossil fuel based power and create millions of solid high skilled jobs.  It has been mentioned that coal might be replaced by cleaner gas electricity power stations in the future due to the nature of gas opportunities in Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique. This is concerning as it will function to further retard the development of a renewable energy sector within South Africa.  Considering the lessons learnt in the USA, why are we continuing to spend money on fracking which has the potential to destroy future generations water supplies when we have the solution (the sun) simply falling on us daily. In the UK the fracking debate has reached fever pitch with proponents of fracking claiming that 35,000 jobs will be created, far less than the 300,000 claimed by Shell. Opponents of fracking in the UK have claimed that many more jobs can be created within the renewable energy sector if funds for fracking are redirected.

In summary it’s clear that many companies are lining up to feed at the fracking trough. What is urgently required is an assessment of the costs and benefits of fracking VS the costs and benefits of a new, clean renewable energy sector inclusive of manufacturing. I would bet that if this was done independently that the one factor that would stand out above all else is that job creation by going the sustainable renewable energy route would far exceed jobs created through fracking. Let’s think long term, sustainable solutions rather than medium term fossil fuel solutions. If we do this we cannot in good conscience continue to support the growth of harmful shale gas exploration.