If you have been following the fracking debate, odds are, that at some point, either during a glitzy television commercial or in an energy industry press statement, you were reassured that hydraulic fracturing is “an old, time-tested technology” or a process that “has been used for over 60 years”. These claims instill a confidence in the industry and this method of energy production because, by now, it would mean that best practice is in place to limit any possible environmental degradation whilst pursuing energy security.
I fell for it too.
When I first started researching unconventional gas development, Mr Bonang Mohale, the chairman of Shell South Africa repeatedly assured audiences that his company has been fracking “for 60 years, in over 1.1 million wells, in the USA alone”. In support of economic stimulation, job creation and a response to South Africa’s energy crisis, I welcomed this news and repeatedly boasted the fine track record to concerned farmers in the Karoo:
“These companies have been fracking for three times as long as I’ve been alive, I think you’ll be okay Oom.”
But soon after I arrived in the United States, the origin of fracking and the main country currently carrying out the process, I realized how the Karoo community and many others had been duped.
Truth is, we’re talking about an entirely different drilling destination and a new type of technology to take us there.Read More»
With a growing number of countries considering shale gas extraction via the process of hydraulic fracturing, communities across the world are regularly reassured by the arriving energy companies that this an old, time-tested technology or that “there are no documented cases to link fracking to groundwater contamination”.
It is here, amidst clever wordplay and misconceptions around complex definitions, where the fracking debate reaches a stalemate between proponents of the technology and those opposing the global shale gas advancement.
The first stumbling block comes down to lack of common understanding around the definition of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. In recent years, the word seems to have been adopted by the general public to refer to the entire window of shale gas extraction and production – the clearing of well pads, pipelines and compressor stations; the thousands of trucks bringing in all the additives; the drilling of the well; the explosions in the shale layer; the pumping down of fluids and the production of the gas.
Unearthed director, Jolynn Minnaar, speaks to Cape Media about the upcoming documentary.
Jolynn describes the challenges of independent filmmaking and the arduous journey to get to the bottom of fracking. Speaking her mind, Jolynn shares her views on the risks and benefits of shale gas extraction and questions whether or not this form of energy production fits into future energy economies.
Unearthed was recently featured on RSG’s EkoForum. Christine Wessels spoke to the director, Jolynn Minnaar, to find out more about the project and the findings that have been uncovered during the 18 month investigation. Below is a translated, transcribed version.
Christine: Jolynn, we’re sitting here at Zootee Studios in Cape Town where you are busy with the post-production on a documentary you’ve produced called ‘Unearthed’ that investigates hydraulic fracturing. Over the last year, we have all been holding our breath to see what happens with regards to fracking in South Africa.
Jolynn: During the past 18 months, prior to making a decision on whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing, the South African government decided to conduct more research and declared a moratorium on all license applications. This year, on the 7th of September, the moratorium was lifted and now the various companies can apply for exploration rights to test for possible shale gas reservoirs in the Karoo.
Christine: The documentary, ‘Unearthed’, how did that come to fruition?
Jolynn: It all began in April 2011. I stumbled across the word ‘fracking’ in a newspaper and an innocent, inquisitive streak ended up prompting the project . Having done some research and realizing there was a severe lack of information impeding a broader public discussion on the matter, I was concerned that those responsible for making the decisions about fracking were in no position to make an open, inclusive, informed decision. One of the main obstructions in accessing information is due to the fact that the only existing shale gas model is in America. This is a problem if you’re situated in South Africa or Europe and you’re trying to understand what it is about and decide whether or not it is good idea to pursue. So, I set off to see what the whole saga is about.Read More»
During the 1960s, with the hopes of finding oil, the state-owned company, Soekor, embarked on a series of exploration wells in the Karoo region of South Africa. In 1967, one was drilled on Skietfontein, a farm in the Aberdeen district. According to Andre Els, a former Soekor employee who worked on this site, after reaching a depth of 4000 metres, they lost the drilling fluid that contained compounds such as bentonite, chrome lignosulfonate and caustic soda. Six weeks later, over 30 km away on a farm near Klipplaat, a farmer noticed a discoloration in his borehole. Responding to the complaint, Els visited the farm to inspect. The water contained chrome lignosulfonate. With no possibility for this powerful deflocculant to be naturally occurring nor any other drilling taking place in the area, the drilling fluid had swiftly migrated over 30km and made its way to a water source. The unexplored deep geology of the Karoo briefly made itself known.
Fast-forward around 50 years and you’ll find the same area currently being eyed out for “fracking”, or, to avoid falling into the wordplay trap, more accurately referred to as shale gas extraction.
Why is the correlation between the Soekor wells of yesteryear and today’s applications for unconventional gas extraction important?
Meet Professor Gerrit van Tonder, a leading geohydrologist from the UFS Institute for Groundwater Studies who is better known in recent months as the Pro-fracking Professor who did a U-turn. Originally optimistic about shale gas extraction, van Tonder backtracked in June to warn that fracking would severely impact underground water supplies. Together with his doctoral student, Fanie de lange, they looked at the Soekor wells in order to anticipate the outcomes of shale gas extraction in the same region. In the area that Shell, Falcon and Bundu, have applied for drilling rights, there are 14 Soekor holes. Thus far, five of those are leaking fluids to the surface.
How is this possible? Don’t fluids stay put underground the way
well-behaved dinosaur juice should?