‘Fracking’ may cloud Karoo stars

Rupert, a royal and astronomers take on Shell amid fears of pollution and loss of giant radio telescope

South Africa’s top scientists are fuming over plans to extract gas from the proposed site of the world’s largest telescope – a R15-billion astronomy project in the Karoo.

If petroleum giant Shell has its way, it could also

Fracking field
Fracking field

be exploring for gas next to the country’s famous Sutherland observatory, in an area declared an astronomy reserve three years ago.

Shell’s proposed prospecting area includes about 100000kmĀ² of South Africa’s arid heartland, one of the quietest places on earth and an astronomy hot spot because of its clear skies.

And outraged local residents – including billionaire businessman Johann Rupert and Princess Irene of the Netherlands – have joined forces to fight the company’s plan to explore for shale gas in the region.

Documents submitted to the Petroleum Agency SA show Shell’s prospecting area would include both Sutherland and Carnarvon, the country’s two most sensitive astronomical sites. Mining operations could threaten the country’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope outside Carnarvon. South Africa and Australia are competing to host the facility.

Shell this week said it was looking at pumping sea water deep into the ground in the Karoo, to tap large underground gas reserves. Environmentalists have slammed the drilling technique, known as “fracking”, claiming it could pollute the Karoo’s scarce underground water supplies.

Fracking is a method of fracturing rock using water pumped deep underground.

“We are astonished that the Department of Mining can approve something like that (Shell’s exploration bid) without checking other government departments,” said Professor Phil Charles, director of the South African Astronomical Observatory. “We are bringing to their attention the constraints of the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which protects our astronomy sites, mainly Sutherland and Carnarvon.

SKA spokesman Adrian Tiplady confirmed the project office had registered as an “interested and affected party” in terms of Shell’s public participation process. Tiplady said: “The SKA project office noted as an issue of concern … the potential harmful effects on radio astronomy.”

“The SKA project office also submitted … a document explaining the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, the requirements of the act, and the various declarations and regulations that have already been gazetted. We also offered to engage with the parties to discuss radio astronomy requirements,” Tiplady said.

Shell’s application has drawn criticism from the National Research Foundation, which confirmed that mining was not permitted in astronomy reserve areas. “The proposed exploration project is opposed by large parts of the community due to the potential detrimental affects on existing water supplies in the Karoo,” the foundation said.

The Department of Science and Technology is aware of Shell’s application.

The DA’s Gareth Morgan, a member of parliament’s portfolio committee on environmental affairs, said Shell’s bid would seriously compromise South Africa’s bid to host the vast radio telescope.

He also questioned whether the government was capable of monitoring Shell’s mining activities.

Shell spokesman Phaldie Kalam said: “We will obviously have a look and see how our operations will impact on any scientific installations in and around the application area.”

A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs, Albi Modise, said the department was aware of Shell’s fracking but had regulations governing such activities.

He said the department would need to authorise Shell’s plans.

The long-awaited radio telescope outside Carnarvon will eventually have 4000 antennae forming a giant ear on the universe.

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