Fracking in the Karoo – What you need to know, and why you should definitely care

Fracking has been, and will continue to be, a highly emotive and controversial topic. In light of this, it may prove useful – for those of us who might not be well acquainted with the subject – to have a brief summary that covers what we need to know, and why we should definitely care.

OK, so what exactly is fracking?

Fracking is a shorthand word for hydraulic fracturing, and is essentially a method by which important resources like gas, oil and water can be extracted from underground reserves. These reserves are often trapped in a layer of highly impermeable rock (sometimes referred to as “tight” rock) situated a considerable distance below ground level. Fissures have to be created in the impermeable rock to allow the resource in question to flow into a bored well before being brought to the surface. These fractures are produced, firstly, by a controlled explosion, and then by immense pressure generated by a pumped fluid (usually water).

Watch – how water pressure is used to fracture impermeable rock

There are two types of hydraulic fracturing: conventional and unconventional fracking. In conventional fracking, a well is drilled vertically down into a rock layer that contains the resource (in the Karoo, shale gas). This method is often uneconomical as the volume of the resource is limited by the vertical depth of the layer. In unconventional fracking, the well is drilled vertically until it reaches the targeted layer, where it then takes a 90 degree turn. This allows the well to extend for several hundred metres along the length of the layer. In many instances, the drastically enhanced access to the resource makes this approach financially attractive.

It should be noted that the impermeable/tight rock is, in most areas considered for fracking, often well below the groundwater layer used for potable and agricultural purposes. This, however, doesn’t mean that widespread concern is unwarranted or the mere product of an alarmist media.

Right: Conventional vs Unconventional fracking. Image source: Unpacking the issues around fracking in South Africa 14 July 2017 – Robert Scholes and Greg Schreiner Left: Map of the two Karoo ecoregions as delineated by the WWF on a satellite image from NASA.

OK, so what are the main concerns around fracking?

The case against fracking in the Karoo focuses mainly on the following concerns:

1. In a water scarce country, the use of millions of litres of water to increase the volume of the fractures  is untenable and dangerous. The Great Karoo is a semi-desert, and all its water resources have already been allocated to residents, agriculture and tourism. If 15 million litres of water are used per fracture, water will have to be re-directed from other uses; alternatively it will have to be transported from external, better water resourced areas, including the coast or even (possibly) the Orange River.

2. Fracking water contains chemical additives used to stop well corrosion, lessen friction in the well, and sterilise well water in order to prevent bacterial growth. These are often toxic and could adversely affect the health of communities if waste water is spilt or mismanaged on the surface.

3. The danger to ground water reserves is increased if the well’s protective encasing (that is, the borehole’s seal) is damaged. This is especially so if the damage is located in a subsoil layer containing potable water (a fresh water aquifer). In the event this occurs, gas and chemical additives could leak and render the water unusable. Proponents, however, argue that as long as the wells are subject to comprehensive regulations and monitored by qualified entities, the risk of contamination is drastically reduced.

4. A possibly over-stated financial benefit to the region and the country’s economy; some stakeholders suggest that the exploitation of gas in SA could add billions to our GDP. For example, one estimate concluded that gains would come to 9.6% of GDP. In an article examining the impacts and feasibility of fracking in SA, Robert Scholes (WITS) and Greg Schreiner (CSIR) point out that gas has the important benefit of being able to supply quick-to-respond electricity in the event that coal and renewable energy can’t meet demand. Moreover, “Relative to the use of imported gas, a viable Karoo shale gas find would save foreign exchange, accrue tax and employment benefits, and improve national energy security.” However, they also write that just because gas exists in the region:

This does not mean that it’s economically viable to [frack] in the Karoo. Large volumes of gas have been claimed to be present based on sparse data, but the economically recoverable resource is much, much smaller. Best current estimates put it in the range 5 to 20 trillion cubic feet (tcf). By global standards, even the top end would be relatively small…


The number of jobs provided is quite small, especially for the low-skilled unemployed (a few hundred). The size of a shale gas industry in financial turnover terms is of the same order of magnitude as the existing Karoo farming and tourism industries. So it would make little sense to promote shale gas if it were to the significant detriment of existing, longer-term sectors.

The Common Ostrich. Image courtesy of Yathin S Krishnappa

5. Shale gas is a finite fossil fuel that produces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, and it can also emit mercury. The CO2 emissions in gas combustion are up to 50% less than in coal, but some experts warn that the life cycle of shale gas increases CO2 emissions considerably.

6. Opposition groups argue that SA would accrue more benefit in the long run from investment in renewable energy resources like solar and wind power than from shale gas.

7. One of the most sensitive and contentious issues relates to the consequences fracking will have on the cultural lives of communities. For example, letters written by the sister of acclaimed SA author, Eve Palmer, address the effects of a test drilling site established on their Karoo farm in the 1960s. According to Rhodes University Professor Emeritus, Paul Walters, the letters:

Reveal the impact of a single drilling team on a single site: the precious healing silence and darkness of the Karoo was shattered by Caterpillar engines that ran day and night, powering powerful lights (not to mention the diesel fumes); the human impact of imported workers led to a steep rise in promiscuity, prostitution and the spread of sexual diseases among local populations; stock theft and the presence of wandering stock on the highways as the result of gates left open rose exponentially…

Professor Walters further writes:

In a country like ours, which is currently trying to rein in the destructive effects of an utterly corrupt “captured” regime, we cannot afford to destroy – irreversibly – this priceless fragile resource to satisfy the greed of a few.

8. Lastly, the seismic activity associated with fracking can possibly cause infrastructure damage. In the Karoo, however, seismic activity is less of a concern than it would be in Gauteng and its adjoining areas in the Free State and North West. This is because the Karoo doesn’t lie on a tectonic fault, nor has mining created a vast network of subterranean passages below it.

Mineral and Resources Minister, Gwede Mantashe, announces his intentions

Gwede Mantashe. Adapted from file image: The Citizen

Either way, it would seem, fracking in the Karoo might be unavoidable. In his May 2018 budget speech, Mineral Resources Minister, Gwede Mantashe, said:

We intend to move with speed to fast-track the finalisation of exploration rights applications so that South Africa can maximise its chances of reaping the benefits from shale gas exploration and exploitation.

Mantashe also claimed that the Main Karoo Basin contained an estimated 205 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas – a number ten times higher than that stated by Scholes and Schreiner earlier.

Spring flowers in the Namaqualand. Image courtesy of Winifried Bruenken

This means that while the debate may rage on, the granting of rights needed for exploration and extraction may simply be a matter of time.

Marathon swimmer and clean ocean advocate, Lewis Pugh, received a standing ovation after his address to a 2011 public forum: In his words,

Never, ever did I think that there would be a debate in this arid country about which was more important – gas or water. We can survive without gas… We cannot live without water.

It may be the case that in going forward, all we can hope for is that the presence of shale gas in the beautiful and fragile Karoo won’t be the curse so many believe it already is.

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