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Fracking - shale gas drilling in the Karoo    
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The government of South Africa is on the brink of taking what may be an irreversible decision about a largely unstudied technology, in an environment where the requisite parties have not been consulted or heard. The Department of Minerals, DMR, has stolidly ignored all forms of communication from ngos’ and the media – and has even refused to respond to a PAIA application from the Argus newspaper within the 30-day allotted period. Based on the conduct of the (DMR) and statements by Shell to their shareholders that they will receive an approval for exploration in September, the public of this country would be justified in believing that the decision to award licences for shale gas mining has been made in favour of the applicants.
One can almost imagine the patter of feet in the corridors of power as lobbying occurs in the offices of the decision-makers of our nation. Our government is desperate to appease an unemployed populace and an economy hampered by looming energy challenges. With the exception of only two Ministers, one defending the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) bid and the other standing up for water, no other minister has dared to take a public stance on fracking.

The ongoing showboating by Shell in espousing their own version of how competent, open, honest, and transparent they are as a company, underscored by their ill-researched data on how many jobs will come to this country has been proven to contain genuine falsehoods and half-truths. We refer to the ruling of the Advertising Standards Authority in July. The smooth delivery of corporate rhetoric from Mohale, Eggink, et al on behalf of Shell does not stand up to rational analysis and it is an insulting suggestion that Shell be trusted to make the Karoo an ecological example. Such an approach could never be considered by a thinking person having regard for Shell’s record as a polluter overseas and in Africa. Shell also admits that they can’t speak for the other applicants (who have remained ominously quiet in the light of Shell’s promises).

Critical questions remain unanswered.

• Where will they find water? Sea? River? Deep underground?
How will they recover underground water without damaging the fragile aquifer system?
Where will they dispose of fracking fluid? Into rivers? Into our sea? Onto our farmlands?
Mohale’s claim of recycling fracking fluid (August 15th) and giving it to the local community to use is so far-fetched as to defy belief. Fifteen wastewater treatment plants in Pennsylvania have since May refused to process any more frackwater on the basis that they cannot remove the chemicals or radiation prevalent in the waste.
They have no knowledge of where the Karoo’s aquifers are situated and also run the risk of intercepting dolerite sills, which are in a thick and tangled formation across the Karoo.

• The gas reserves estimated by the International Energy Agency and the US Geological Survey are half of the original estimates and 90 times more than the reserves stated by PASA. Accordingly the so-called economic argument for energy generation and jobs may be based on hopeful supposition – pushed by Shell.

• The industry steadfastly denies even one documented case of pollution of underground water from fracking, when any rational person with access to the news media or the internet can establish that they have a cigarette company mentality.

• Fracking as a technology has garnered a bad reputation in a very short time and has been banned in countries and states who have done so on the basis of informed research. Those countries and states also need energy and employment, but they have made the decision that the long-term sustainability of their environment is irreplaceable and not worth damaging for a marginal and quickly exhausted resource like shale gas.

• A more detailed evaluation of solar and wind power (see TKAG article) makes a case for resources to be ploughed into this sustainable alternative. 145 000 jobs by 2020 in South Africa serving a renewable energy industry – and of course the energy that comes with it – (source – Global Climate Network March 2010).

• The knock-on costs on South Africa’s transport infrastructure, interruption of farming activities, tarnishing of tourism potential, impact on spatial and rural development plans and the cost to the state of treating sick people are all glossed-over by those chasing profit. And on the subject of jobs – only 66 Shell employees supervise 400 Shell wells in Wyoming – after the fracking is finished (about 3 months maximum), the activity declines to a team of skilled engineers who monitor the wells.

• Land values in the Karoo have been drastically affected and will never recover if fracking takes place and until long after the last fracking rig leaves – who would buy a farm where the potential for toxins to leach into the water is always present?

Despite the trite promises from Shell about making the Karoo a global example, we are skeptical that they can deliver – especially when their international reputation as a polluter is considered. When the documented environmental record presented by shale gas mining is added to the equation, there is a strong argument to seriously investigate renewables in South Africa right now, rather than perpetuating our dependence on fossil fuels. South Africa cannot afford to licence this process unless it has adequately investigated the alternatives and proved that shale gas is the only – and sustainable answer – and a legacy that we would all be happy to leave to future generations.


Solar can beat natural gas to the line:

Amid the clamour by oil and gas companies to adopt natural gas as the ‘new, clean-burning energy source’, solar energy has rapidly emerged as a sustainable and viable alternative. Supporting this trend are well-documented cost-reductions in Photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing and solar system installations.
Stephen Lacey, a US-based journalist with Climate Progress reports that cost reductions are driven by exponential growth in renewable energy systems. Lacey’s report confirms the inexorable advance of renewable energy costs towards ‘grid parity’ – the time when solar becomes as cheap as fossil sources. The crossover is happening in phases – one market and one technology at a time. Solar has averaged a compound annual growth rate of 65% for the past five years; a figure proved by sales of solar components – installations in 2010 alone amounted to 17 gigawatts – about 40% of South Africa’s current generation capacity.

It suits producers of fossil fuel to dismiss renewable energy as ‘too-expensive’, ‘too slow to provide growing power needs’, and ‘incapable of maintaining base load energy requirements’. But actual performance statistics released in the last twelve months dispute claims by Royal Dutch Shell that renewable energy cannot provide the power that we need. Shell’s claim that it will take South Africa 20 years to develop sufficient renewable energy is inaccurate. According to Tom Dinwoodie of SunPower and Dan Shugar, CEO of Solaria, solar PV is no longer a fringe, cost-prohibitive technology – but, rather, a near commodity that is quickly becoming competitive with new nuclear, new natural gas and soon, new coal.

Since the mid 1970’s when PV manufacturing costs were R430 a watt, the cost has steadily reduced to around R10.75 today. Central to this predictable and continuous reduction in costs is a concept, well known in computer hardware circles as ‘Moore’s law.’ Essentially this maxim means that for every cumulative doubling of manufacturing capacity, costs will fall 20%. The solar industry can prove that its manufacturing costs have fallen about 18% for every doubling of production. When SunPower built the 14-Megawatt Nellis Air Force Base system in 2007, the project cost R50 per watt. Installation costs 3 years later were down to R21.50 per watt. In 2010, the average installed cost of solar PV dropped 20%.

And while Moore’s law doesn’t necessarily work on the system installation costs (referred to by industry as Balance of System – BOS) acquisition and installation costs are falling steadily, due, in the main, to advances in web-based tools that streamline sales and inspections, new wiring, racking and inverter technologies. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado based think tank of scientists predicts in its report Achieving Low Cost Solar PV (September 2010) that BOS costs will decline by 50% by 2015.

The brilliance of solar is highlighted by the fact that as a modular technology, it can be produced and installed at a pace far faster than most other energy technologies – in contrast with fossil fuel powered facilities. Naturally, the argument for a ‘base load’ resource as opposed to a ‘peaking’ resource must be considered, and gigawatt for gigawatt a nuclear plant will produce more electricity than an equivalent solar PV plant. But solar brings a different kind of value to the grid – it can be quickly deployed on existing infrastructure (warehouses, commercial buildings and houses) in a much shorter time than natural gas plants. It is non-polluting. And it is sustainable. It will create sustainable jobs. The Global Climate Network in a March 2010 publication stated that South Africa could create 145 000 jobs by 2020 if we pursued manufacturing of renewable energy components. In the stated timeline of Royal Dutch Shell ‘about nine years to production ’ this raises the bar for fracking proponents considerably – especially when one considers that gas wells are exhausted in a period of 5-10 years.
Shugar provides an astounding statistic: If only 500 megawatts of solar PV had been deployed in the northeast US to alleviate a power shortage, the 2003 US-Canadian blackout would not have happened. That blackout was the second largest in the world causing between R50-R70 billion in economic damage. Solar plants can supply peak power when it is needed most – on summer days when air conditioners and other cooling appliances are used. In areas like South Africa, where it is reported that we have more sunny days than New Mexico, solar is becoming competitive with natural gas plants.
California has recently signed contracts for a combined 4 gigawatts of solar PV plants all priced below the Market Price Referent – an averaged price for electricity. Applying the concept of Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) in comparing a gas ‘peaker’ to a solar installation predicts that from 2011 to 2016 the cost per Kilowatt-hour for natural gas will increase from R1.60 to R1.70 while the cost of solar will decrease from an already cheaper R1.00 to 60 cents.
Solar is even cheaper than new nuclear when PV cost reductions are calculated for equivalent generating plants, taking into account the rising costs of nuclear manufacture and installation over a 13-year build period, versus a two-year period for a solar facility. Given that shale gas drillers make much of South Africa’s urgent energy needs, they will be hard pressed to explain the disadvantages of going the renewable route.

The worn-out rhetoric that ‘solar is too expensive’ doesn’t hold up anymore. Despite the trite promises from Shell about making the Karoo a global example, we are skeptical that they can deliver – especially when their international reputation as a polluter is considered. When the documented environmental record presented by shale gas mining is added to the equation, there is a strong argument to seriously investigate renewables in South Africa right now, rather than perpetuating our dependence on fossil fuels. South Africa cannot afford to licence this process unless it has adequately investigated the alternatives and proved that shale gas is the sustainable answer – and a legacy that we would all be happy to leave to future generations.



Article posted by: klair (7 November 2011) [Send private message]
 
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  References  
  • Jonathan Deal - TKAG (Treasure Karoo Action Group) chairman, August 2011  
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