July 11, 2020

Drilling Down: South African Farmers See Threat From Fracking

Covering much of the roughly 800 miles between Johannesburg and Cape Town, this arid expanse — its name means “thirsty land” — sees less rain in some parts than the Mojave Desert.

Even so, Shell and several other large energy companies hope to drill thousands of natural gas wells in the region, using a new drilling technology that can require a million gallons of water or more for each well. Companies will also have to find a way to dispose of all the toxic wastewater or sludge that each well produces, since the closest landfill or industrial-waste facility that can handle the waste is hundreds of miles away.

“Around here, the rain comes on legs,” said Chris Hayward, 51, a brawny, dust-covered farmer in Beaufort West, quoting a Karoo saying about how rare and fleeting precipitation is in the area.

With his three skinny border collies crouching dutifully at his side, Mr. Hayward explained that he had to slaughter more than 600 of his 2,000 sheep last year because there was not enough water to go around.

“If our government lets these companies touch even a drop of our water,” he said, “we’re ruined.”

South Africa is among the growing number of countries that want to unlock previously inaccessible natural gas reserves trapped in shale deep underground. The drilling technology — hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for short — holds the promise of generating new revenue through taxes on the gas, creating thousands of jobs for one of the country’s poorest regions, and fueling power plants to provide electricity to roughly 10 million South Africans who live without it.

But many of the sites here and on other continents that are being considered for drilling by oil and gas companies and by governments short of cash are in fragile areas where local officials have limited resources, political leverage or experience to ensure that the drilling is done safely.

A Surge in Interest

The interest from big energy companies in South Africa and elsewhere means that shale gas may redraw the global energy map, according to many energy experts.

Michael Klare, a professor of world security studies at Hampshire College, said that the new sources of natural gas from shale may lessen the geopolitical importance of countries that historically have been the biggest producers of natural gas, including Iran, Qatar and Russia. The new drilling, which draws strong support from the United States government, represents a boon for American companies like Halliburton, Chesapeake Energy and Exxon Mobil that have greater experience with shale gas, and therefore are likely to win many lucrative contracts abroad.

More than 30 countries, including China, India and Pakistan, are now considering fracking for natural gas or oil, and the surge in gas production has spurred interest in building pipelines and terminals that liquefy the fuel so it can be shipped to far-flung markets. In the United States, shale gas has increased supply, driving prices down and benefiting industrial plants that use the gas for manufacturing and consumers who depend on it for electricity, heating or cooking.

But the enthusiasm abroad, especially in less-developed regions, does carry risks, according to many energy experts.

“The big problem is that all the excitement around shale gas, most of it fostered by the U.S., has also led some countries, especially in the developing world, to take a drill-first, figure-out-regulations-later attitude,” said Professor Klare, who has written extensively about the way that energy policies affect global security. “There is simply too much being taken on faith when it comes to company reassurances about the safety and costs of this drilling.”

The Indonesian government, for example, is considering allowing drilling for shale gas in a part of Java where, in 2006, drilling led to the eruption of a mud volcano that killed at least 13 people, and displaced more than 30,000 residents from 12 villages, according to a team of international scientists. Indonesia is a major exporter of liquefied natural gas, but it struggles to meet domestic demand, and supporters of the shale drilling project say it will help solve that problem.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=0ed1e5b5cd6dc35135ae97b6440d17a0

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