When should we start fracking in the Karoo?

The plains of the Karoo are thought to have a huge volume of shale gas deposited in rock formations deep underground. The reserves are yet to be exploited. Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is a technique used to extract that gas.  A high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into rock causing cracks to form, sand particles keep the cracks open and that allows the gas to flow up to the surface for use. Local fears relating to possible impacts on ground water in particular and, I suspect, an additional element of "not in my backyard" to boot mean fracking is a contentious point in the Karoo. 

Prince Albert and the Swartberg mountains

Prince Albert and the Swartberg mountains

The arrival of fracking in the Karoo is almost inevitable and on environmental grounds, at some point, this would regrettably be the right decision unless something very dramatic happens to the way in which we humans live. In this article I'm only considering the environmental implications and leave aside economic impacts such as job creation, tax receipts and domestic access to relatively cheap fuel for electricity generation in gas-turbine power stations. I'll consider how damaging fracking would be on the Karoo landscape around Prince Albert and what alternatives could be. 

Will fracking damage the Karoo?

Let's start with the easy question. Would fracking damage the Karoo? Yes, it would. To fully comprehend the sensitivity of the landscapes near Prince Albert I asked retired botanist Sue Milton-Dean to show me evidence of historic human impacts in the area. The Khoekhoe, the region's indigenous pastoralists, created kraals for their fat-tailed sheep to shelter from predators. The archaeological record shows that one kraal, just outside Prince Albert, has not been used since a date prior to the arrival of Europeans in the area. Therefore, it has not been used in over 250 years. The footprint of the kraal, along with livestock trails leading to it, remain clearly visible today. A quarter of a millennium from its most recent use and vegetation at the site has not managed to recover. It's almost incredible to think that a community whose tools were no more advanced than sticks and stones and broken bones have left near-permanent scars on the landscape. 


250 years later the kraal site remains visible

We wouldn't want to lose such important archaeological sites but I was intrigued to know how long it would take the veld to fully recover and asked Sue. "Not within the next ten generations" she replied, "and it’s already had 250 years to get to this point". The process of vegetation recovery could be hastened with nets to restrict sand movement, seeding and other techniques, although in an area where some bushes are 200 years old any restoration can never be a complete resurrection of the veld's natural state. Sue added that on larger areas, which take longer to restore, even when plant life returns, "it’s superficial in many ways; plant growth doesn't mean insect or other life returns, it's sort of like building a film set, it can lack depth". 

It's glaringly obvious that any ground level human activity with a level of technology equal to or exceeding the Khoekhoe's sheep, sticks, stones and bones is going to have effects which are about as close to permanent as we can imagine. Industrialised areas used by the fracking industry would therefore create serious harm to the veld which is probably impossible to reverse entirely, even with the most elaborate and expensive rehabilitation programs.

What are the alternatives?

The demand for shale gas does not come from evil multinationals. It comes from people, domestically and internationally, who use energy sources. We are all responsible, some more than others. As our human population grows and we consume more it follows that demand for resources also increases. There are alternatives to fracking in the Karoo, both in location and in means of energy generation. Alternatives also have environmental downsides. 

If the location remains the same but the means of generating power changes then the Karoo could be, for instance, covered with solar panels. Shaded vegetation under the panels, the habitat of animal life depending on it, would die. The carrying capacity of the land to carry sheep would be reduced (one can graze some sheep around solar panels – but fewer than without panels).  On the other hand if the Karoo escapes entirely, energy demand won't miraculously lessen because of the Karoo's reprieve. Somewhere else would be fracked, mined or have some other form of exploration or generation placed upon it to satisfy demand. Or we could choose to have power outages instead. 

If we must have shale gas exploration I'd rather see the most sensitive and biodiverse landscapes and ecosystems preserved and the least sensitive exploited first; fracking in accordance with some form of biodiversity hierarchy which, as far as I am aware, does not exist. If areas are conserved on the basis of which local pressure group shouts loudest that could push fracking to areas of even higher environmental distinction (which don't benefit from the same publicity). A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration says China is the country with by far the largest technically recoverable shale gas reserves. It would not be a true global environmental victory if the Karoo was spared at the expense of a Chinese region with a higher biodiversity value. What's more, China's level of regulation is likely to be lower than South Africa's and I doubt Chinese pressure groups are going to be as free or able to be as vocal.

I understand, on a local level, why Karoo residents don't want their neighbourhood fracked and it's easy to grasp the delicate nature of the local landscape. Even if it can be shown that the Karoo is the most sensitive area with shale gas reserves, that's not likely to persuade a government desperately seeking job creation to avoid the entire Karoo. Objectors might be better placed spending resources undertaking their own research establishing where would be the least bad place to frack and then have evidence based environmental arguments to help conserve the most significant areas. 

Prince Albert's pretty main street

Prince Albert's pretty main street

At the beginning I wrote that I suspected fracking is almost inevitably coming to the Karoo and on environmental grounds, at some point, this will be the right decision. That's for the simple reason that even if shale gas is drilled in strict accordance with the non-existent biodiversity hierarchy, once the sites at the bottom of the list are exploited, we'll have to move up the list, eventually it will be the Karoo's turn. If there is no fracking at all, it means other energy sources will have to be used elsewhere instead. Very few people want their area fracked or mined and communities are not leaping forward asking for their hillsides to be covered with wind turbines to conserve alternative areas elsewhere.

Shouting about fracking will not reduce demand for energy but it might push energy development elsewhere, hopefully not to more sensitive areas. On global terms that would be a real environmental Pyrrhic victory. Having a hybrid car, using rechargeable batteries and turning off unused lights all have an effect, but those measures alone will not reduce global energy demand as populations continue to increase and energy inequalities are reduced (as they must be). So thinking for the long term, choosing to have fewer children could be the most environmentally sound decision you could ever make. If more people chose to do so (and had chosen to do so) it would reduce energy demand and could prove the best way to protect habitats like the Karoo and elsewhere.

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