Imagine a rock with thousands of pockets. Then imagine you have to drill, thousands of times, to release the gas from these pockets. This is what the Karoo looks like underground and the amount of drilling needed could make fracking costly, says Wlady Altermann, a geologist at the University of Pretoria.
“All the knowledge of these compartments and the distribution of pockets are very poor. [The Karoo] would require a very good geophysical investigation. After that, the drill hole positions need to be drilled to investigate the properties of the rock, the stability of the composition and the wealth of the gas. Only after that, can a decision be made as to the wealth of the shale gas,” says Altermann.
The German-born professor knows a thing or two about rocks. Apart from studying them since he was a child, Altermann spent years studying rocks on Mars. Space travel was out of the question so Altermann flew across the globe and has been studying mineral deposits in South Africa since the 1980s.
Altermann, now the Kumba-Exxaro Chair in Geodynamics of Ore Deposits at the university, believes that fracking is harmless if it’s done properly.
“The misconceptions are basically based on poor information. It comes from the direct comparison with the United States, which I think is not comparable. Secondly, it comes from the perceptions that the surface and the shallow subsurface have something to do with shale gas deposits. Shale gas deposits are much deeper.”
FRACKING IS HARMLESS
“The fracking itself is such a tiny part of the entire process itself. It’s not the dangerous part of the process. The dangerous part of the process is the later methods of production. Fracking itself, I think, it’s the wrong discussion,” says Altermann.
(READ MORE: Fracking: One man’s meat is another man’s poison)
Water contamination by drilling through the Karoo’s aquifers, 300 meters below the surface, is also unlikely says Altermann, because the distance between the underground water and the shale gas is far.
“The shale in the United States is at much shallower levels. Between 1,000-1,500 meters. The deeper you go, the less the risk of contamination. The pressure in the ceiling holds the gas better. The chance to contaminate groundwater through that type of production is so low; you really must act like an idiot to do this. It’s not impossible but if it’s done properly, there’s no problem,” he says.
The fracking process has made significant technological steps since it began 70 years ago, says Altermann. Wells can be spaced further apart because drilling horizontally can stretch for 5 kilometers. Ten years ago, that same reach was a kilometer.
THE HIDDEN DANGERS
The risk lies with the waste after fracking. Companies in the US have been guilty of reusing this water to save costs, instead of disposing of it.
(READ MORE: The global reception of fracking)
“This is what causes most of the problems. In other countries, it is forbidden, there are environmental laws. That should be avoided in South Africa as well, controlled in a way that you can be sure nothing happens,” says Altermann.
Natural gas is a greener fossil fuel than coal, says Altermann.
(READ MORE: Fighting the good fight against fracking in S.Africa)
“South Africa’s energy demand is expected to increase by 60 per cent up to 2050. Coal cannot supply it; if coal supplied it we would sit in darkness and not see our beautiful sunsets under the African sun. At today’s state of technology, the best way to mitigate climate change and CO2 emissions, the cheapest thing technically is to switch from coal to gas combustion. It reduces CO2 emissions by 50 per cent. It’s a much more effective way of producing energy,” says Altermann.
“People talk about fracking and groundwater; no one realizes that actually in many areas where groundwater is scarce, where there is not enough water to supply the population, fracking is used to extract groundwater. They frack the rocks, the aquifer, without chemicals with just water and sand and crack the rocks, so that water can flow out the cracks easier. It is used by many countries especially in sub-Saharan Africa.”
According to the professor, fracking could change the face of South Africa and not cause too much worry.
For more on this story read: Last gasp for Eden: Creating a peaceful buffer against fracking