Fracking, climate change and greed February 6, 2013Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, Global warming, South Africa.
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Fracking, climate change and greed
(This column was first published on 2013-01-29 at News24 here)
The global fracking boom is gaining momentum. It’s in full swing in America. China, a country with shale gas reserves comparable to those of the USA, is preparing to establish its own massive fracking industry. The British government has recently lifted an earlier suspension of fracking activities and green-lighted a controversial new gas generation strategy. In South Africa, we’re ready to join the fray.
In trying to persuade us that these are positive developments, the oil and gas industry would have us believe that shale gas produced by fracking is:
a) a low-carbon energy solution that generates less greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than other fossil fuels,
b) a bridging fuel to a future low-carbon economy, and
c) an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change.
Each of these assertions deserves some scrutiny.
A low-carbon fossil fuel?
While shale gas, just like conventional natural gas, burns more cleanly than oil or coal, there is considerable scientific debate over whether it has a smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels when all the stages in its production are taken into consideration.
In the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from fracking wells, a group of researchers led by Cornell University professor Robert Howarth argued that such wells leak up to twice as much methane, a much more potent GHG than CO2, than conventional gas wells, resulting in emissions comparable to those associated with coal. These results have been disputed by a number of other scientists, but Howarth has defended his findings, stating “that for most uses, the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”.
A new study has brought into question the rate of methane leakage in natural gas fields in general. The authors found that as much as 4% of all the methane produced at a field near Denver disappeared into thin air – that’s about twice the rate claimed by industry. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, they presented additional data from Colorado and Utah suggesting leakages of up to 9%. These measurements exclude any losses from pipelines and distribution systems.
The figures are important: in April last year, scientists showed that electricity generated by burning natural gas only has immediate climate change benefits if the total leakage from production is below 3.2%.
A bridging fuel?
Shale gas could only possibly be considered as a transitional source of energy to a low-carbon economy if there was, in fact, an unbridgeable gap that needed crossing. There isn’t and the argument is a red herring.
Numerous reports have shown that currently available renewable energy technology is perfectly capable of satisfying most if not all of our power requirements by 2050. A small recent sampling includes studies by the US National Energy Laboratory, some of Europe’s most distinguished renewable energy experts and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.
The transition to a cleaner, low-emission economy based on renewable energy sources – with which we are richly blessed in SA – requires political will, not a push to exploit more fossil fuels.
A weapon against climate change?
Instead of saving us from global warming, shale gas stands to push us over the edge.
According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, no more than a third of the world’s proven reserves of all fossil fuels – not just shale gas – can be consumed before 2050 if we’re to have a 50% chance of constraining average temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and maintain a reasonably stable climate. More conservative estimates argue that, to be safe, 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.
The bottom line is simple: if we dig up all of the shale gas beneath our feet, the planet fries.
That should be a good enough reason not to, but to the oil and gas companies the stuff simply represents profits waiting to be liberated. If you believe they will stop drilling holes into the ground before they’ve got it all or before the weather turns nasty, you’re dreaming.
A refreshingly honest summation of the industry’s greedy rationale by Professor Terry Engelder, a geologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in Nature in 2011 says it all: “Fracking is crucial to global economic stability [read “money in our pocketses”]; the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks”.
UCT Fracking Panel Discussion May 19, 2011Posted by Andreas in Environment, Fracking, South Africa, University of Cape Town.
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Gasland Karoo April 21, 2011Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, South Africa.
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(This column was first published on 2011-02-16 at News24 here)
I have seen the future of the Karoo and it looks grim.
No, I haven’t turned clairvoyant overnight, but I did just watch Gasland, the Oscar-nominated documentary about extracting natural gas from underground shale formations in the United States.
In most cases, the extent of environmental disasters only becomes apparent with hindsight, when it’s too late. On precious few occasions do we get an inkling of what environmental impact an activity is likely to have because others have done us the dubious favour of acting as guinea pigs. By highlighting the devastating effects a hideously messy gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is having in the US, Gasland affords us a chilling vision of what is going to happen to the Karoo if Royal Dutch Shell and others, who have started to explore for gas shales in the region, have their way.
When an oil and gas company offers Josh Fox, the film’s director, nearly $100 000 to lease his piece of land located above the huge Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania, he sets out on a cross-country tour that opens his eyes to the dangers of fracking. The technique, which involves injecting millions of litres of water, sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals into boreholes at high pressure to release natural gas trapped in layers of gas shale as tiny bubbles, was developed by the American company Halliburton.
In 2005, then US Vice President Dick Cheney, who just happened to have been Halliburton’s Chairperson and CEO between 1995 and 2000, helped to push an Energy Bill through Congress that exempted the activities of oil and gas companies from the existing Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and various other environmental laws and regulations. Known as the “Halliburton loophole”, this opened the floodgates on one of the most destructive episodes of natural resource exploitation in history.
Confronted with some 450 000 fracking wells in 34 states, Fox documents a litany of complaints from people living near gas drilling operations: domestic groundwater wells contaminated with natural gas, fracking chemicals and other toxins; farm animals losing hair and weight; chronic headaches and more debilitating human health problems; hazardous air pollution; open wastewater pits; hugely increased truck traffic; mini refineries, pipelines and storage facilities at every well site; natural gas bubbling from formerly pristine creeks; and, perhaps most notoriously, several households whose tap water can be set alight. We can look forward to all of these in the Karoo!
The gas industry doesn’t think there’s a problem. Fracking is adequately regulated, poses no real threat to underground drinking water, doesn’t need to be investigated any further and reports to the contrary are incorrect, they say. Pro-drilling groups like Energy in Depth have gone as far as writing a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences telling them that Gasland should be ineligible for a best documentary feature Oscar, prompting Fox to publicly defend the validity of his film in a point-by-point rebuttal.
There are several parallels between what has happened in the US and what may well happen in the Karoo: stunningly beautiful big-sky landscapes, sparsely inhabited by salt-of-the-earth type people, sitting on a petrified ocean of gas billions. If American regulators were unable to protect their citizens and environment from an industry that’s clearly under-funded in the moral conscience department, what are our chances of saving the Karoo from a similar fate?
In the words of Lisa Bracken, who appears in Gasland:
“The corporate business model is to come into an area, develop it as fast as you can and if you trash anything you make the people who you impact prove it. You make ‘em argue it in a court of law and the last person standing gets bought off and you move on.”
It’s not too late to prevent the Karoo from turning into another Gasland. The time to stop this unique, ecologically fragile, historically, archaeologically and geologically invaluable national treasure from being trashed for a few dirty gas dollars is right now!
Gasland screenings in Cape Town March 7, 2011Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Climate change, Environment, Film screening, Fracking, Global warming, Press Release, South Africa.
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Gasland, the Oscar-nominated documentary about fracking – an environmentally destructive method of natural gas exploitation that may be used in the Karoo soon – will be shown at:
The Labia on Orange cinema in Cape Town on Monday 21 March at 6:15pm, on Tuesday 22 March at 8:30pm and on Wednesday 23 March at 6:15pm
The Bioscope Independent Cinema in Johannesburg on Monday 4 April at 8.00pm, Tuesday 5 April at 8.00pm and on Friday 8 April at 8.00pm.
Part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown – Gasland is the must-see documentary of the year!
The largest natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The drilling technology of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” just beneath the country. But is fracking safe?
When filmmaker Josh Fox is asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. A recently drilled town in the neighbourhood reports that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire. This is just one of the many absurd and astonishing revelations of a new country Fox calls Gasland.
This documentary is particularly relevant to South Africans because Royal Dutch Shell and other local and international oil and gas companies are about to start exploring for natural gas in the Karoo. The fracking technique that will be used for extracting this gas is extremely water-intensive and known to cause devastating groundwater pollution. Watching Gasland is a bit like watching the Karoo of the future – if we allow fracking to happen here!
The screenings will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion.
Tickets for the screenings at the Labia can be reserved by calling 021 424 5927. Tickets for the screenings at The Bioscope can be booked online at www.thebioscope.co.za or by calling 087 830 0445. We strongly recommended that you reserve tickets to avoid disappointment.
This event is presented by the Labia, http://www.fractual.co.za, a South African anti-fracking website, Earthlife Africa Cape Town and While You Were Sleeping, a Cape Town-based non-profit film collective committed to bringing progressive, non-mainstream documentaries with important social, political and environmental messages to South African audiences.
021 424 5927
087 830 0445
Official film website:
While You Were Sleeping:
Stop Fracking in the Karoo February 16, 2011Posted by Andreas in activism, Climate change, Environment, Fracking, Global warming, South Africa.
Large parts of South Africa’s beautiful, but water-poor and ecologically sensitive Karoo region are under threat of being devastated by mining operations to extract natural gas using a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’.
During fracking millions of litres of water, sand and numerous chemicals most of which are toxic, carcinogic as well as teratogenic (they include benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), diesel fuel, naphthalene (moth ball) compounds, boric acid, arsenic, poly nuclear organic hydrocarbons, only to name a few of 500-odd chemicals used), are pumped into boreholes at high pressure to release natural gas (called shale gas) trapped in layers of underground rock.
In the USA, where fracking has been used extensively, there have been hundreds of documented cases of this process resulting in:
– catastrophic drinking water pollution;
– air pollution;
– health concerns for humans and animals; and
– general environmental degradation.
Right now, Shell and other international and local companies are preparing to explore tens of thousands of square kilometres of land in South Africa for natural gas exploration by fracking. Most of the area under threat is already extremely water-stressed and can not afford any water to be either wasted or contaminated by the fracking process which, once in full production, may involve tens of thousands of boreholes and billions of litres of water.
There is a growing groundswell of opposition to the use of fracking in South Africa by a broad coalition of farmers, environmental organisations and ordinary citizens.
If you are concerned about the likely environmental and health impacts of natural gas exploitation in our country, please join us in adding your name to the following petition.
We, the undersigned:
Call on national, provincial and municipal government to institute a moratorium on all on-shore exploration and exploitation of natural gas in South Africa, especially any operations involving hydraulic fracturing, at least until comprehensive, independent, scientific assessments can guarantee that such exploration and exploitation activities will not lead to detrimental environmental or health effects and until independent and efficient measures are in place to monitor all shale gas exploration and exploitation.
Call on Royal Dutch Shell and other international and South African companies to refrain from endangering the environmental integrity of the Karoo and the health of its inhabitants by engaging in shale gas exploration and extraction using hydraulic fracturing technology.
Please sign the petition here and spread the word!
Find out more about fracking here:
Fractual – a South African website about fracking. Register on the site to receive a regular newsletter about the latest local and international developments.
Gasland – an Oscar-nominated documentary about fracking in the USA