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This is the first in a series of science-related posts based on my recent trip through parts of South Africa and Swaziland. Follow up posts will look at rhino poaching, Swaziland’s AIDS crisis, the sustainability of game parks, the geology of the Drakensbergs and South Africa’s Square Kilometer Array project. Check out my photos from South Africa here.

The Karoo source: Wikipedia

From the convoys of coal trucks you meet on the outskirts of Johannesburg, to the open pit diamond mines at Voorspoed and the still-active goal mine near the pock-marked landscape of Pilgrim’s Rest in Mpumalanga, there are reminders everywhere of South Africa’s long history of mineral extraction.

In the excellent book Diamonds, Gold and War, Martin Meredith details how a vast stretch of land previously thought worthless and too difficult to tame, became the subject of Europe’s fixation when diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa in vast quantities. It’s fair to say that the country’s heritage is steeped in the culture of exploitation that flourished in the diamond mines of Kimberley – and also coloured by a fight between Briton and Boer for mineral wealth that had a devastating impact on the indigenous population.

Despite its long history of mining, or perhaps because of it, South Africans are wary of moves to open up a modern form of mineral extraction – hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. As I travelled around South Africa last month, the radio crackled with debate over the government’s move to lift a national moratorium on natural gas fracking in the Karoo – a massive semi-arid area covering much of South Africa’s Cape region.

Fracking ban lifted

In mid September, South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources lifted the moratorium on fracking it put in place in April 2011. Exploration for shale gas will now be allowed to proceed and companies such as Shell have signaled they are willing to invest billions if gas fields are allowed to be opened up.

For South Africa, developing natural gas production is a tempting proposition. After all, it is estimated to have one of the 10 largest reserves of shale gas in the world – 485 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Karoo Basin. South Africa is a net energy importer and around 90 per cent of its energy needs are met by coal or coal-derived fuels.

South Africa is one of the world’s top five exporters of coal, giving it a fairly dubious reputation when it comes to efforts to mitigate climate change. So natural gas holds out some hope of cleaning up South Africa’s soot-stained energy supply.

Energy companies are vigorously pursuing fracking all over the world to tap natural gas reserves after testing the technology to good effect in the US, where the process has been credited with accessing energy that produces less carbon emissions than coal. US carbon emissions are tailing off – all thanks to fracking.

But South African NGOs, environmentalists and in particular, the inhabitants of the Karoo, see things differently. Like a lot of people around the world, in the US, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe where companies are seeking to tap natural gas supplies, they are concerned that fracking – and more specifically, the chemicals used in the fracturing process, will pollute groundwater sources.

Water crisis

That’s a common worry in many countries, but South Africa is one of the driest countries on earth and already faces serious water shortages. Disrupting the fragile ecology of the Karoo through pollution of groundwater or sucking up large amounts of water for use in the fracking process, is out of the question for many.

The South African Government appears sensitive to the concerns, which are well canvassed in the report. Ultimately, however, it recommends…

…normal exploration (excluding the actual hydraulic fracturing), such as geological field mapping and other data gathering activities (e.g. hydrological studies) to proceed under the existing regulatory framework.

While South Africa’s natural gas supplies are potentially huge, the government notes that it is entirely unclear how much of the gas can be accessed.

Because of the uncertainty regarding the extent, or even existence, of economically producible reserves, any assessment of the potential economic impact is subject to enormous uncertainty.

However, making a moderately optimistic assumption that ultimately 30 trillion cubic feet will be produced, and using indicative pricing of US$4 per thousand cubic feet of gas and an exchange rate of ZAR8 per US dollar, the gross sales value would be almost ZAR1 trillion (around US$110 billion).

However, as with most countries other than the US, there isn’t the natural gas infrastructure or expertise in South Africa to support fracking – all of that will have to be inported from the US, meaning much of that potential revenue will be tapped off by drilling companies. There are other considerations. The Karoo comprises part of the site chosen for the Square Kilometre Array project, one of the biggest science instruments in development, which South Africa will receive billions in international funding to develop.

Astronomical interference

The massive radio telescope array depends on a low level of radio interference, which was part of the reason why South Africa beat out Australia and New Zealand to host the SKA. The South African Government notes:

Unmitigated radio-frequency emissions produced by the operation of heavy industrial equipment in shale gas exploration and production are expected to be detrimental to radio-astronomy operations.

Site-specific analysis will be a prerequisite for operations in areas defined by the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act.

So the rewards are uncertain, the potential detrimental impacts serious. Which is why the South African Government has given a cautious go-ahead to explore the area to better get a handle on the gas available for extraction.

Ultimately South Africa is in the same boat as a host of countries – they want to exploit cleaner sources of fuel but are worried they’ll damage their environment in the process. The same story is playing out here in New Zealand where the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, is next month expected to publish an in-depth report on fracking, which certain local authorities have already banned.

While many of the concerns over fracking – such as the risks of it triggering earthquakes, have largely been dismissed by scientists, the safety of the process depends to a large extent on successful execution of the drilling process, the contained injection of water and chemicals and the removal of waste products.

What it comes down to is whether people -  South Africans, New Zealanders, or Americans, are willing to live with the risk of fracking going wrong. A leaking fracking well won’t be anywhere near as devastating as a Deep Water Horizon-style oil spill but with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of wells likely to be constructed in the Karoo, the risk of at least some groundwater contamination is considerable.

Factoring in South Africa’s precarious water situation and the country’s heavy reliance on dirty fossil fuels, the fracking debate is potentially more vexed in South Africa than in any other country when it is currently before regulators and environmental authorities.