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Grassridge Dam, start of the annual Hansa Fish River Marathon. Shell is planning on drilling deep wells and doing experimental hydraulically fracturing (fracking) between Grassridge Dam and Conway, and also between Cradock and Bedford. Photo by Chris Marais.
By Julienne du Toit
In the past few months, senior officials from Royal Dutch Shell have paid Cradock and Middelburg several visits.
Jan Willem Eggink, general manager of Shell’s Upstream division (which handles oil and gas exploration and exploitation), said that since August, they have had meetings with Inxuba Yethemba Municipality, the farming communities of Fish River, Schoombee and several other parties.
Their repeated visits to this part of their 90 000 sq km shale gas exploration concession suggest that Shell regards this as a priority area, and the Eastern Cape might see heavy trucks and drilling rigs before other parts of the Karoo. Shell are allowed to drill between two and eight wells in each of their three precincts during exploration, which could last up to 10 years.
In an interview with this newspaper in mid-November, Eggink denied that they have specific farms or properties in mind as likely drilling sites when their licences are formalised by Government – something he expects to happen in the very near future.
Grassridge Dam
However, Shell spoke more openly to Fish River farmers without media present. Farmers there say they were told at the meeting that Shell planned on drilling deep wells and doing experimental hydraulically fracturing (fracking) between Grass-ridge Dam and Conway, and also between Cradock and Bedford.
This has caused grave concern about potential contamination to the dam and the Great Fish River, the source of Cradock’s and Cookhouse’s drinking water, and the irrigation water for the Fish River Valley.
“We don’t know what to do,” said one despondent farmer. “It feels like we’re taking a penknife to a battleship.”
In the US, where this specific form of shale hydraulic fracturing first took place just over 10 years ago, it was initially welcomed. But since then, serious problems have emerged, including groundwater and surface water contamination, serious air pollution, human and animal health problems, the industrialisation of rural areas, and fears for water and food security. As a result, fierce opposition to the practice has emerged.
Fracking has now been banned or suspended in 150 countries, provinces and municipalities around the world. South Africa lifted its moratorium on shale gas exploration in September this year, but has kept in place a prohibition against actual fracking.
Shell’s favoured fracking areas
A map from Shell’s Environmental Management Plan, submitted to the Petroleum Agency of South Africa in April last year, shows the areas they consider worth exploring in their Eastern precinct.
These include an area south of Cookhouse and Somerset East, another in the area of Dassiedeur, a large section close to Cradock and to the east of the town, the area around Fish River station which includes Grassridge dam, as well as a broad circle between Middelburg and Noupoort.
The shaded areas of interest straddle or are close to the N10 road, possibly for ease of access to large trucks.
All the towns in Shell’s eastern precinct depend either partially or completely on groundwater, with the exception of Cradock, Cookhouse and Adelaide, which obtain drinking water from rivers.
Very few jobs
Eggink explained the planned sequence of events. Once they have obtained the exploration licences from Government, Shell will be doing seismic testing, using specially adapted trucks to ascertain how deep and how thick the shale layers are.
Once they have chosen their preferred sites, each site will be subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment, during which time the public can make submissions.
Eggink said this process is expected to take about two years. They hope to be drilling their exploration holes at the end of 2014 or in 2015. Shell hopes that by this time Government will have relaxed the prohibition against fracking.
He confirmed that during the first 10 years of exploration, rigs and personnel would be brought in from overseas and there would be very few jobs available for local people, except for some veld clearing or occasional security.
Problems with dolerite
The Karoo is known as the only potential shale gas area in the world that has dolerite (ironstone) intrusions, caused by volcanic action 180 million years ago.
“During drilling we will be avoiding dolerite because it is a very thick hard material, with the risk that it could be a conduit to the surface,” he said.
Professor Gerrit van Tonder of the University of Free State’s Institute for Groundwater Studies has identified dolerite as a major risk factor during fracking because groundwater travels along it – as could toxic fracking fluids.
“We think the risk of contamination is small, but we’d rather stay away from the dolerite,” said Eggink.
He confirmed that an important part of their exploration would be to locate underwater brackish aquifers about 300 metres deep that could be used for fracking, “because we have undertaken not to compete with Karoo farmers for fresh water”.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas uses up to 25 million litres per fracking event per well – which could be fracked several times over years during full production. The water is mixed with various chemicals and sand and then injected underground along horizontally drilled wells at depths of 2000 to 4000 metres at very high pressures. This hydraulic fracturing causes cracks in the shale rock layers which are then kept open with the sand. This allows the methane to escape and be collected at the surface.
The horizontal wells can be up to 2.5 km long, but during exploration may only be a few hundred metres in length.
“Of course we cannot guarantee there will be no accidents. Someone carrying a drum of diesel might trip and spill it. That’s an accident,” said Eggink.
Each well is lined with well-casings – several layers of steel and cement to safeguard the groundwater that the drilling rigs penetrate.
Eggink said there was only one known case of water contamination from fracking (the actual moment when the high pressure water mixture is injected) in America.
Well-casing failures
But he did admit that failure of well-casings had proven to be a problem in America, causing gas and fracking chemicals to enter groundwater.
“This is because smaller companies cut corners. We are industry leaders, and our well-casings will last a very long time.”
Eggink could not say how long they would last, however. In the US, scientists have noted an overall failure rate of around 6% within the first three years.
Professor Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University in New York State is an authority in the mechanics of fracking. He has noted that in addition to the initial failure rate, all well-casings will fail eventually.
Apart from potentially dangerous fracking chemicals, the water already present in these deep shale layers could prove a problem if they come to surface. Apart from being very salty (and therefore dangerous for agriculture), the fluids are likely to be radioactive to some degree because of contact with underground uranium ore. This has proved to be an issue in Pennsylvania’s gas fields.
Eggink has said the flowback water after high-pressure fracking might be re-used in other wells, but will eventually have to be disposed of as hazardous waste. It’s still unclear where this disposal might take place.

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