Redi Tlhabi discusses shale gas: either the equivalent of finding gold for the first time or an environmental and health hazard, depending on which of her guests you ask.
“Are we at the edge of a revolution as big as the Industrial Revolution?” asks Redi at the start of the show. “In the United States experts are saying this new form of gas extraction is a political game changer – it will end America’s dependence on fossil fuels from the Middle East, effectively shifting the entire power balance.
Here in the global South as well, shale gas discoveries promise to change the economic power balance between north and south. But many argue that shale gas extraction has devastating environmental and health consequences. The arguments and evidence have been so convincing that hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, also known as fracking, has been stopped in Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In Bulgaria and Czech Republic, a six-month moratorium on exploration work is in place. The pro frackers are adamant that the risks are containable and the advantages indisputable. The environmentalists are equally adamant – fracking is dangerous.”
Redi is joined in Johannesburg by Bonang Mohale of Shell South Africa; Professor Gerrit van Tonder from The Institute for Groundwater Studies at The University of The Free State; and Saliem Fakier from the World Wildlife Fund.
Bonang argues for the benefits of fracking. “For us, shale gas would be like discovering gold all over again,” he says. For South Africa, a net energy importer where 10 million South Africans have no access to any form of electricity whatsoever, he believes, “This is the most amazing opportunity. We are sitting on almost the fifth largest gas reserves in the world.”
He points out, “Internationally hydraulic fracturing is a 60-year-old technology that Shell has been pursuing vigorously probably for the last 35 years. When it was first done, there were some issues and challenges. But today it has been perfected.”
He adds, “We pressure test the pipes on the surface to 10 times the pressure that will be required. That’s why until now there has never been a single case of a well collapse or of water contamination as a direct result of Shell’s activities.”
As a former advocate for fracking who has since changed his views, Gerrit challenges this. While making it clear that he isn’t talking about Shell specifically, but rather gas companies in general, he highlights their selective phrasing, where they talk about ‘fracking’ without incident, but don’t measure the impact after closure or abandonment. “There are hundreds of cases of water pollution,” Gerrit says, claiming that many of these are suppressed by payoffs. “All the gas wells will leak eventually.“
He says fracking companies must tell South Africans what they plan to do with the hazardous, flowback water.
“It is a gas bonanza,” he says. “It is a game-changer for South Africa, but we must do it correctly, not the way they are doing it in the United States at the moment.”
Bonang says any fracking is “always very geology-dependent,” so Shell would never simply import strategies from the USA, but would rather study the new context and come up with a bespoke solution.
He says Royal Shell Dutch has a presence in more than 104 countries, but that South Africa has “the most stringent pieces of legislature we have ever encountered…. That is why it has taken us from 2009 up until now and we still do not have an exploration rights agreement in our hands, because this government wants to make sure that indeed this resource can be put to good use, responsibly, safely, for the majority of people.”
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