Gas Fracking & SA’s Karoo

29 Mar

South Africans are up in arms after Shell and other oil & gas companies announced their respective plans to drill for gas in the Karoo. This is a very arid and ecologically sensitive region that encompasses large parts of South Africa’s Nothern, Western, and Eastern Cape provinces. Although the Dutch-British oil giant and the other companies have said that fracking poses no danger to the environment and that the search for gas in the Karoo will not compete with residents over drinking water, South Africans and Karoo residents in particular are keeping their foot down.

Karoo Landscape. Copyright photo & text: Miriam Mannak

This blogpost tries to give answers to some questions around fracking in the Karoo. Please bear in mind that I am no expert what so ever, and that I do not claim to be an expert.  So yes, chances are that I have made a mistake. If you find one, please let me know. If you have information I should add, please drop me a line too.

1) What the frack is fracking?

Fracking is another word for ‘hydraulic fracturing’ – a drilling technique used by gas and oil companies to reach natural gas deposits hidden in deep shale formations. The process works more or less like this: First, a well is drilled to the gas deposits (sometimes at 4.000 meters deep). Many wells, once they reach the gas deposits, turn horizontal. Then a mixture of water and chemicals, sand and chemicals (1% of the mixture) is pumped at high pressure into this well. While the water and chemicals serve to make fractures in the shale and to cool the drill bit,the sand keeps the cracks open and so that the shale gas can flow freely upward. The captured gas is stored and used for for instance heating.

2) Sounds pretty innocent to me. What is all the fracking fuss about?

While the oil and gas companies claim that fracking is a safe way to exploit natural gas deposits and poses no dangers to human life and the environment, various groups say the exact opposite. Fracking, as said above, uses water that is mixed with various chemicals. Sometimes this fracking water mixture spills and ends up in water resources. In 2008, Newsweek published a story on how fracking fluids almost killed a woman and in September 2009, fracking water spilled from broken pipes and hoses in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, leaked into a wetland and creek. Last year, dangerous gasses into the drinking water of another rural Pennsylvania town as a result of fracking – leaving scores of people sick.

3) What chemicals do these oil and gas companies for fracking?

There is quite a bit of of unclarity around what chemicals are used for fracking. In the United States for instance, gas drillers are allowed to keep the chemicals they pump into the ground a secret. This could change in Texas where a bill is being considered. This piece of legislation could oblige gas drillers that operate in this State to disclose the chemicals they use. The only State where this is the case, is Wyoming.

Back to the fracking chemicals, which comprise 1% of the water mixture pumped into the ground. According the Australian LOCK THE GATE Alliance, this list includes:

  • Propanol – is used as a complexor, ánd as a solvent by the pharmaceutical industry. This chemical is highly flammable, harmful when inhaled and swallowed. Irritates eyes and skin.
  • Butoxyethanol – is used to reduce surface tension. This chemical is a component of white board cleaners, liquid soaps, cosmetics and lacquers. It causes all sorts of liver and kidney problems.
  • Acetic Acid – is used to adjust pH levels. It is very corrosive, acidic and flammable. It may cause severe chemical burns to eyes and skin.
  • Acrylic copolymer – is used as a lubricant and includes methyl methacrylate, methacrylic acid, butyl acrilate and buthyl methacrylate – all toxic chemicals that are used in solvents.
  • Ammonium persulfate – is used to reduce viscosity (it basically turns a gel into water). This chemical is also used in hair bleach and glass cleaning products. May irritate eyes, nose, lungs, throat and skin upon contact.
  • Boric Oxide – is used as a crosslinker to increase viscosity. This chemical is used to  produce alloys, glasses and ceramics, and may cause irritation of upper respiratory and kidney injury.
  • Disodium Octaborate Tetrahydrate – is used as a gelling agent/Crosslinker to increase viscosity. This chemical is also used as a fertilizer and may affect the gastrointestinal tract , skin, vascular system and brain.
  • Hydrochloric Acid – is used to clean the wellbore prior to fracking. This chemical is used as a pool cleaner and is very corrosive. Inhalation of vapour can cause serious injury. Ingestion may be fatal.  Lethal to fish from 25 mg/l  or more. Toxic for aquatic organisms due to pH shift.
  • Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether – is used as a mutual solvent. This chemical is also used in household cleaners and fire fighting foam. Both liquid and vapour are combustible. Harmful if inhaled, when in contact with skin and if swallowed. It is irritating to respiratory system.
  • Muriatic Acid – is used for cleaning the well bore. This chemical is also used in the leather tanning industry, and is corrosive to living tissue. Exposure to higher levels can cause breathing difficulties, narrowing of the bronchioles, blue colour of the skin, accumulation of fluid in the lungs and death.
  • Quaternary Polyamines – used for clay control. This chemical is corrosive and dangerous for the environment. Very toxic to aquatic organisms.

For the complete list of fracking chemicals, click here. NOTE: While American companies are not obliged to disclose the chemicals they use for gas fracking, Shell has stated it will reveal the substances that will be used in the Karoo.

4) That sounds hectic. But Shell, Falcon Oil and unset Energy have said they will be very careful when fracking in the Karoo, and will not pollute the environment.

Many people point fingers at the fact that for instance Shell does not have a crispy clean track record when it comes to protecting the environment:

  • In 2006, a Nigerian told Shell to pay $1.5 billion for  polluting the Niger Delta
  • The 1993 Oil Spill Intelligence Report by Greenpeace, which was an evaluation of ten years of oil spills between 1983 and 1993, revealed that Shell’s major spills in Nigeria totalled to a massive 7.4 million litres.
  • In 2010, Shell was ordered to pay a $3.3 million civil penalty to the States of Alabama and Louisiana in an air pollution settlement.

Watch this video and listen to a speech by Maritime lawyer and environmental activist Lewis Gordon Pugh, which he delivered a week or so ago, to hear more about Shell’s environmental pollution track record.

5) I have heard fracking uses a lot of water. Is that true?

Yes, the process of fracking requires lots and lots of water. According to the website, the American energy company Chesapeake Energy uses between 4.5 million gallons (170.3 million liters) to drill one horizontal deep shale gas well. According to Kim Bye bruun, media communication manager at Shell, has said that one vertical well will require between 300.000 and 900.000 liters. A horizontal well required between 1,1 million and 6 million liters of water, he said.

The Karoo in South Africa is a very arid region, with very little rainfall. The enormous amounts of water that are needed to frack for gas is one of the main concerns of the Karoo residents.

Shell has stated the project will not compete with the Karoo communities’ needs for freshwater supplies. Many people however wonder how this promise will be put into practice, and where Shell will get its water from. Please note that many parts of South Africa struggle with a chronic water shortage.

6) How much gas is there in the Karoo?

There are no figures available yet, although it is said that The Karoo basin harbours approximately 3.000-5.000 trillion cubic feet of gas. The aim of the Shell and other oil companies so far is to see if there is gas in the Karoo and how large the deposits are. Shell will explore an area of about 90 000 square kilometres, stretching from Bedford in the east to Sutherland in the west. The area is as big as South Africa’s province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Falcon Oil & Gas from the United States has received a permit to explore 30 000 square km in the Karoo,  an area one and a half times the size of the Kruger National Park. Australian company Sunset Energy has been given the go ahead to explore an area of 35 000 square km, including Pearston and areas around Graaff-Reinet.

7) When will Shell start drilling its first gas wells?

The drilling is said to start sometime next year, if the mineral resrouce minister Susan Shabangu gives the company the go-ahead. This will happen sometimes in August this year. Various groups including the Treasure The Karoo Action Group are determined to stop the plans.

8) I live in the Karoo. What if one of the three companies find gas on my property – will they have to pay me for it?

According to the law, South African landowners do not own any minerals or natural wealth that are tucked away beneath their land. Shell has stated it will compensate landowners in the Karoo for damages as a result of the fracking activities.

10) Why has South Africa agreed with all of this?

According to the 2010 Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity, South Africa has to expand its grid by 52 Gigawatt over the next 20 years to meet the projected electricity demand. Part of the IRP for Electricity, is to reduce the carbon emissions rate by 30% over the next two decades.  South Africa, where the bulk of the electricity is generated from coal, is the world’s 7th largest producer of greenhouse gases.

Natural gas is said to be much cleaner than oil or coal. According to, the combustion of natural gas results in one third less carbon dioxide than oil and 50% less than coal.

11) I am against fracking in the Karoo. Are there any organisations I can join? Where can I learn more about fracking  in the Karoo?


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7 responses to “Gas Fracking & SA’s Karoo

  1. watershed

    March 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    The statement that ‘natural gas is much cleaner than oil’ is not based on any scientific fact, not on life cycle analysis. If a complete life cycle analysis is undertaken, it is clear that natural gas is as dirty as drilling for oil, or even as mining for coal. See here for more detail:

    • Miriam Mannak

      March 29, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      Thanks for this. In case it was not clear in my post, I was quoting an organization who made these claims (the statement was not my statement).

      • watershed

        March 29, 2011 at 1:49 pm


        My pleasure, and i know its not you who made the statement, its the PR-people of the so-called ‘natural’ gas industry!

        The word ‘natural gas in itself is misleading – it creates the impression that this is ‘harmless’ because it is ‘natural’, i.e. occurring in nature. If that is true, radioactive matter, arsenic, mercury, etc could also all be labelled ‘natural’, but these substances would not be ‘naturally’ in our environments if it was not removed by an artificial anthropogenic process, in this case, fracking.

        It should be called shale-gas.

        Thank you for a great post tho, and for the effort you put in to make people arware of what we are dealing with 🙂

      • Miriam Mannak

        March 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm

        Thanks a lot for this additional information! Helps me a lot to understand the matter!

  2. liam

    April 5, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Hi Miriam

    thank for a great and informative post! All our voices combined will hopfully add up up to a klap for Shell

    I am 100% against fracking espcially in an area as sensitive as the karoo. This will ultimately affect all of us whether inland or coastal.

    We are trying to mount pressure on shell through protracted social media as well as direct campaigns…to show our displeasure at the way this is simply being rolled out despite massive objection.

    I have been trying to find out the relevant email addresses at shell to voice our displeasure and disgust at their operations. Do you by any chance know any of the right email addresses? Their websites do not carry email contacts, only phone numbers.



    • Miriam Mannak

      April 5, 2011 at 10:07 am

      Hi Liam,
      Thanks for your email and the compliments. The only addresses I have, are of the communications officers / media spokes people. They will not helpn you any further, I am afraid. Can I please please note that Shell is not the only company that wants to drill for gas. There are TWO MORE. By just putting pressure on Shell, you risk that the other two will slip away and do what they want and get away with it.

  3. gst

    July 15, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Seems to me we can’t have it both ways. Either the lights stay on or the fracking stops. Aren’t we all being a bit nimby about this?? What are the (viable and realistic!) alternatives??

    I am not pro-fracking, just a bit concerned that there’s a bit of hysteria attached to this whole thing


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