News / Africa

Water, Wealth and Whites: S. Africa's Potent Anti-fracking Mix

Game farmer Hennie Barnard looks out over his land near Aberdeen in the Karoo, South Africa, October 10, 2013.
Game farmer Hennie Barnard looks out over his land near Aberdeen in the Karoo, South Africa, October 10, 2013.
Reuters
Stretching across the heart of South Africa, the Karoo has stirred emotions for centuries, a stunning semi-desert wilderness that draws artists, hunters and the toughest of farmers.

It is now rousing less romantic passions.

If energy companies and the ruling African National Congress [ANC] get their way, it will soon be home to scientists and geologists mapping out shale gas fields touted as game-changers for Africa's biggest economy, and working out whether fracking will work here.

As with other prospective sites around the world, especially in Europe, the process is meeting significant opposition, some of it thrown up by Mother Nature, some not. The result is likely to be a lengthy delay before any exploration starts.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves digging wells up to 4 kilometers deep, then pumping in large amounts of water mixed with chemicals under high pressure to crack the shale rock and release the gas.

Not only does the Karoo have very little water - the mighty Kalahari desert lies just to its north - but the oil companies are up against a well-organized grass-roots lobby opposed to anything that could upset its fragile environment.

Amid the usual array of greens and “not in my back yard” campaigners sits South Africa's richest man, Cartier billionaire Johann Rupert, who is promising to take a legal fight up to the highest court if Pretoria rushes into granting exploration licenses.

A lack of proper consultation with landowners over exploration, he and his legal team argue, already has violated property rights enshrined in the constitution.

They also say that a number of “significant unknowns” about fracking and the geology of the Karoo must be answered before any green light can be considered legally sound.

“We do need electricity. I'm not a troglodyte,” Rupert, who is worth an estimated $6.6 billion, told Reuters this month after Mining Minister Susan Shabangu made clear she was keen to give the go-ahead.

“We just want to know that they are doing it in a safe way,” he said. “If they do not abide by the law and by the constitution then we'll have to remind them that we do have a constitution.”

Pro-fracking activists concede that a lengthy legal fight is inevitable.

“After the license has been granted, there is going to be legal battle after legal battle after legal battle,” said Vuyisile Booysen, chairman of the Karoo Shale Gas Community Forum.

Gas hunt

The first formal interest in shale gas in the Karoo began in 2008, with an application for exploration rights - as yet ungranted - by Bundu Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Australia's Challenger Energy.

Shale really made the headlines three years later, when Shell applied for an exploration license covering more than 95,000 square kilometers, almost a quarter of the Karoo.

An outcry from farmers and landowners including Rupert ensued, prompting the government to freeze all new and existing applications while it assessed the risks and rewards of allowing exploration and ultimately production to go ahead.

During that time, the pro-fracking lobby, led by Shell, has laid out its stall.

Its key argument is that technically recoverable gas reserves, estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration at 390 trillion cubic feet [tcf], could transform an economy that has always been a big oil and gas importer.

The estimate gives South Africa the world's eighth biggest shale reserves, with nearly two-thirds the amount of deposits estimated in the United States.

A Shell-commissioned study by Cape Town-based consultancy Econometrix suggests extracting 50 tcf, or 12.8 percent of potential reserves, would add $20 billion or 0.5 percent of GDP to the economy every year for 25 years and create 700,000 jobs.

With an election in six months, that argument has gained traction, especially as the ruling ANC is struggling to come up with answers for the millions of impoverished black citizens for whom life has changed little in the two decades since apartheid.

“By embarking on this process presented by hydraulic fracturing for the production of shale gas, we bring the country a step closer to the achievement of our objectives,” Shabangu said this month as revised minerals laws were submitted to parliament.

Shell and its effervescent South African chairman, Bonang Mohale, are convinced their charm offensive will work. He insists Shell will frack safely and with minimum intrusion.

“We will get the license. You can see the frenetic work the government is doing,” Mohale told Reuters. “Why would they go to so much work if the intent is not to properly regulate hydraulic fracturing?”

What about water?

The fact remains, however, that the Karoo's environment - particularly its water supply - is very fragile, and local suspicion runs high.

In Nieu-Bethesda, a village of 1,500 people some 750 kilometers south of Johannesburg, the only permanent water supply since it was founded by frontiersmen in the mid-1800s has been a spring that wells up from deep within the surrounding mountains.

Any interruption to that spring's flow or quality and the town of Nieu-Bethesda risks dying out, making it an extreme example of the threat to water safety that has sparked concern at fracking sites around the world.

“Shell must stay away from here,” said 59-year-old Molly Nikelo, an unemployed grandmother who supplements her meager monthly state hand-out by cultivating a small plot of rare purple garlic for sale in expensive eateries in Durban.

“What about the water? It supplies everybody and only comes from one place. People drink it, wash in it and grow vegetables with it. I've drunk this water every day of my life and I've never been to hospital,” said Nikelo.

Emotions also are being stirred by the legacy of white-minority rule that has left a handful of wealthy whites in control of most of South Africa's land, and blacks in dead-end townships waiting for jobs that never arrive.

“It has become a very nasty racial issue,” said Samuel Zakay, a church minister who came down against fracking after “considerable thought and prayer.”

“People have accused us black ministers of siding with these rich white people,” he told Reuters in Graaff-Reinet, a typical Karoo town of quaint, white-washed cottages and Cape Dutch-style buildings with their distinctive rounded gables.

The pro-fracking lobby are adamant that whites are going to have to give some ground for the greater good, but insist they have nothing to fear.

The people against this project are a few wealthy white residents “who fear losing out”, according to Booysen, the pro-fracking activist. “But this is not Zimbabwe where you take farms without compensation. And we are also concerned about the environment. I live here as well, you know.”

High stakes

For Shell, too, the stakes are high.

Having missed out on the U.S. shale gas revolution, South Africa offers a catch-up play and if it can pull off the technology in the Karoo, the firm will be well-placed to tackle the shale gas lodestone - China.

The world's most populous nation has the biggest estimated reserves, at 1,115 tcf, most of it thought to sit beneath remote, semi-desert regions similar to the Karoo.

Analysts say Shell likely will be able to conquer the technological challenge of fracking in the Karoo, but some are less certain that it can make money out of it.

To minimize the visual impact and its physical footprint, Mohale said Shell is looking to build 32 wells on each 100-meter-by-100 meter fracking “pad," compared to the six wells per pad widely used in North Dakota in the United States.

It also is adamant it will not compete with people in the Karoo for water, but can avoid trucking it in - often several thousand trips are needed per well - by drilling down to brackish aquifers as deep as 4 kilometers underground, sucking up the water, cleaning it, and then using it to frack.

All this pumping and purifying imposes significant costs, however, and the 10-year outlook for global gas prices is not in Shell's favor, analysts say.

“One of the things about shale is that it is a manufacturing process. It's not an exploration and production process,” said Philip Verleger, an independent U.S. energy analyst. “It doesn't work if you have to spend huge sums of money finding water, sand or other material.”

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More