A new study into the pollution of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”, raises difficult questions about whether South Africa would be able to monitor and enforce regulations governing the controversial natural gas extraction technique.
Shale gas has been touted as a way to curb climate change and reduce the world’s reliance on coal, but has been met with vociferous opposition from civil and environmental lobby groups that query whether it is in fact cleaner than coal and whether it contaminates ground water reservoirs, among other concerns.
To liberate the natural gas – which mainly comprises methane – from shale rock, the rock has to be hydraulically fractured or “fracked” to break the rock apart. This involves a mixture of chemicals being pumped into rock fissures at very high pressures, and then recovered for processing, with a small amount of this liquid remaining in the ground.
South Africa has an estimated 390-trillion cubic feet in technically recoverable, but not proven, reserves of natural gas in the Karoo basin. The government is eager to exploit this resource.
Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told Parliament earlier this year: “The development of shale gas [in South Africa] cannot be dismissed or ignored … We should be learning from others on how to best exploit this resource in the least intrusive and environmentally prudent way.”
‘Good news’ for frackers
Now, an American study into the contamination of drinking water in parts of Pennsylvania and Texas has found the pollution was not due to the process of fracking, but to faulty well integrity.
Scientists from five universities – Duke, Ohio, State, Stanford, Dartmouth and Rochester Universities – published their peer-reviewed findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
By analysing the gas content of more than 130 drinking water wells, they found that “the contamination in these clusters stems from well-integrity problems, such as poor casing and cementing”, said Thomas Darrah, assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of Ohio, who led the study while he was a research scientist at Duke University.
“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Anver Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University.
Darrah said that the “good news is that most of the issues we have identified can be avoided by future improvements in well integrity”.
This requires monitoring and enforcement of regulations, and, in the South African context, this may be problematic. Last year, the department of mineral resources gazetted the proposed technical regulations for petroleum exploration and exploitation, which will be incorporated into amendments to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002.
Poor prospects for environmental monitoring
The technical regulations mention the word “monitor” 25 times, but does not say who will do the monitoring or how.
If the amendments to the Act are passed, the responsibility of prospecting, mining, exploration and production would fall to the minister of mineral resources, a ministry whose mandate is to “promote and regulate the minerals and mining sector for transformation, growth, development and ensure that all South Africans derive sustainable benefits from the country’s mineral wealth”, not the environment.
This is why the Centre for Environmental Rights, in its comments of the proposed regulations, said in a statement: “The environmental impacts of fracking must be regulated by the appropriate competent authority … with appropriate resources. Even if the current proposals for the amendment to the [Act] are effected, the authorisation, compliance monitoring and enforcement of these activities will be undertaken primarily by the department of mineral resources and the department of water affairs, both national departments with extremely limited resources [particularly absent is adequate numbers of staff with appropriate qualifications and experience] for compliance monitoring and enforcement.”
Otherwise, companies will be left to regulate themselves. Professor Hilary Inyang, an energy expert and part of the International Council for Science, said last year: “From my experience, the companies are there to make money, not [to] be responsible for environmental stewardship. Their behaviour is dependent on regulations and enforcement of them. They cannot be trusted to do things in an environmentally compatible way. The regulatee cannot be the regulator.”
Who will focus on the frackers?
The centre recommended that a specialised, inter-departmental unit be created to monitor and enforce fracking regulations. “The environmental authorisation of fracking-related activities and the compliance monitoring and enforcement of environmental provisions in relation to fracking [should be] exercised by a specialised, inter-departmental unit under the minister of water and environmental affairs. The costs of recruiting, employing and training inspectors must be borne at least partly by licence holders,” it said.