Skewed politics: the lure of unconventional gas in South Africa

The lure of short term financial gains for South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) is resulting in a skewing of national energy policy towards a resource that has a very limited life span. That resource is unconventional gas.

By Keith Wilson, Climate Reality Leader, photographer, journalist and writer. He is currently writing a book on unconventional gas extraction in South Africa.

Unconventional gas is extracted from shale and coal using a technology commonly known as fracking. A mining activity so controversial that it has grabbed headlines around the world. South Africa included. Yet, local farmers and communities have no idea of the magnitude of change they will experience once unconventional gas mining commences.

The national energy policy now refers to what is being called the GUMP – Gas Utilisation Master Plan. In the GUMP, policy makers specifically state that a significant portion of the energy mix will be made up of natural gas in the future. This gas will be sourced from the shale deposits in the Karoo basin, KwaZulu-Natal and other areas around the country as well as from coal bed methane (CBM) and, even from underground coal gasification (UCG).

Serious concerns have been raised about fracking for gas in the Karoo by environmental groups. Concerns that focus on the possible contamination of precious ground water supplies by the chemicals used in the fracking process. These concerns are well founded as environmental studies in the USA and Canada have now proven that fracking poses a significant danger to ground water.

It is however not just the Karoo that is in danger of having its ground water spoilt. The northern reaches of the country are also facing environmental ruin, from coal bed methane extraction. In this form of mining, underground coal beds are tapped for their vast reserves of methane gas. More often than not, these gas wells are also stimulated, as the oil and gas industry calls it, by fracking to help release the gas. Whereas the global oil giant, Shell, is often associated with fracking efforts in the Karoo (they are not the only company that has applied for licences), Anglo American is at the forefront of the coal bed methane extraction race with its concession in the Waterberg. There are a number of other companies who have applied for coal bed methane licences as well. To complete the array of unconventional gas resources planned for development is underground coal gasification. Here there is already an active operation where ESKOM is using the harvested gas to fuel a power station at the Majuba plant which has been running since 2007.

Government is saying that this gas will be used for power generation, cooking and domestic heating as well as for industry. South Africa is not a country that uses gas extensively for industry. The massive gas to liquids plants run by Sasol are fed by gas imported from neighbouring Mozambique and from gas harvested from the gas fields off the southern Cape coast. Gas stoves that are gaining in popularity run on LPG which is gas that is a by-product of the petroleum refining industry, not methane, which is what will be mined.

This then begs the question of what all this gas will be used for. It is destined for the export market. One of the BRICS partners, China, is the second largest importer of liquid natural gas (LNG). LNG is the processed form of natural gas. South Africa’s close ties with China will no doubt ensure that there will be significant exports of gas to that country.

Apart from the danger that unconventional gas mining holds for ground water, there are a number of other side effects that need to be examined. Among these are the noise and air pollution from the drilling rigs. A drilling rig stands as high as a 15-story building and is powered by a 1 200 horsepower engine. This behemoth consumes as much as 8 300 litres of diesel a day. Drill pipe, diesel, chemicals, sand, water and all the other supplies required need to be trucked in to the site, creating massive amounts of traffic. Once a well is operational, the gas from the well has to be delivered to a refinery where it is cleaned of waste material and compressed. This is done via pipelines. Imagine what the landscape will look like with pipelines snaking across it to get the gas from the gas fields to the liquefaction plant. Farmers will not be able to refuse the construction of these pipelines across their land either. If they do try, the recently passed expropriation bill will allow government to take the land they need to build the pipeline.

To cap it all, the ANC’s 28% stake in Shell is going to guarantee a massive income stream for the party. One can also realise that Shell will be the preferred partner for any refining and liquefaction plant that needs to be built.

The lure of all this money is no doubt skewing policy to benefit a few pockets at the expense of the environment.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the African Climate Reality Project.