Sep 01, 2011

Fracking Method Stirs Controversy in South Africa

Activity causes concerns over possible pollution of water supplies, local environments

A controversial method for extracting natural gas — hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” — is stirring an environmental and property rights debate in South Africa.

The controversy stems from concerns over the safety of the technology, which uses large amounts of clean water mixed with sand and various chemicals to crack the rocks underground to release the gas. Various reports from the U.S., where the method has spread widely over the past decade, suggest that the method pollutes water supplies, potentially endangering local environments and people's health.

A group of energy companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and South Africa's Sasol, have leased rights to a huge shale field containing underground gas, promising economic development and energy security. But their efforts are being contested by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Earthlife Africa, leading the South African government to place a moratorium on all further fracking permits.

The field is located in the semi-desert Karoo region, home to the native Khoisan people and unique biodiversity. Some fear the industry will pollute and deplete already scarce water supplies in the region.

“Karoo comes from a Khoisan word for ‘thirsty land,’” said Lewis Pugh, founder of Treasure the Karoo Action Group. “Even if the chemicals were safe, and they are not, there just isn't enough water to spare. Water is going to be a source of conflict. Do you think the Karoo farmers are going to let Shell show up and destroy their farms? They're going to grab their rifles.”

Royal Dutch Shell officials claim the chemicals used are biodegradable and that the company has created thousands of jobs. According to Yale Environment 360, Shell also says the industry promises billions in revenue, much-needed jobs and energy security for all.

But the benefits cited by the industry would be short-term, Pugh argues, as many wells would only work for about five years, leaving permanent environmental problems.

In South Africa, farmers and homeowners own the surface of the land, while rights to any minerals or resources underground are the government's to exploit. This means that people in Karoo do not stand directly to earn royalties, as they would in many parts of the U.S.

“The bottom line is that the poor people in the Karoo have not been engaged by the Shell environmental management plan,” said Muna Lakhani, volunteer branch coordinator for Earthlife Africa.