Shell’s plans to drill wells for natural gas across a large swathe of the Karoo are fatally flawed and should be rejected, according to lawyers representing local landowners.
Derek Light Attorneys criticised Shell’s environmental management plan submitted to the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (Pasa) this week, describing it as “a worthless paper exercise” that was misleading, biased, unprocedural and unconstitutional.
The attorneys also represent AgriSA and business tycoon Johann Rupert, who owns a farm in the Karoo. The area is the world’s largest mohair producer and has wool, red meat and ecotourism sectors.
Shell Exploration, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, this week submitted plans to Pasa for wells to be drilled at various sites in the Karoo Basin using controversial hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as “fracking”.
“The general perception is put across in the draft environmental management plan that Shell maintains some lofty internationally accepted environmental standard that must surely be good enough for the South African context,” said the lawyers’ critique. “The strategy that Shell knowingly followed by submitting this fatally flawed plan is in fact an attempt to bypass legislation that is in place to protect the people of South Africa.”
Shell’s plan has set the stage for a possible legal battle over its ambitions to drill for natural gas in shale formations that cover about 90% of South Africa. The country has the world’s fifth-largest shale gas reserves and oil giant Shell, which reported profits of $18,6-billion last year, is one of several companies preparing extraction applications.
Well sites inadequate
Fritz Bekker, an environmental practitioner asked by the attorneys to review Shell’s plan, said the impact of fracking could include chemical contamination, gas flaring, explosions and water reduction in an already water stressed environment.
Most of the proposed fracking activities were listed and needed environmental authorisation and impact assessments, but Shell’s consultants, Golder Associates, had attempted to bypass these requirements.
“All risks to the environment and the people of the Karoo must first be investigated in detailed site specific specialist investigations before applications for unfamiliar and invasive exploration technologies should be considered,” Bekker said.
Shell’s plan suggested that eight wells would be drilled in each of the three areas it had mapped out for fracking, but no assurance was given that drilling would be confined to this. “It must therefore be assumed that Shell will drill as many wells as it may require …
“We are of the view that the size of well sites has been understated and that the proposed one hectare exploration well sites provided for [in the plan] will be inadequate,” the review said.
Bekker said the 50-odd scientists who worked on the review estimated that each well site would have to include storage bunkers for explosives and hazardous chemicals, drilling tailings and rigs, gas burners, roads and accommodation facilities.
Shell’s application did not include a plan to manage or rehabilitate these and other environmental impacts of fracking, in contravention of the relevant legislation, he said.
The review also criticised the public participation process involved in Shell’s application. Given the unregulated and invasive nature of fracking, landowners should have been notified in writing and given the opportunity to make meaningful input, it said.
Instead, a limited number of landowners were invited to several public meetings hosted by Shell and were given less than a month to comment on “speculative” plans posted on Golder’s website.
“As a consequence hundreds of landowners, perhaps thousands of interested persons, are still unaware of the process and the landowners have been prevented from participating meaningfully in the consultation process.”
‘No adverse impacts’
Bekker told the Mail & Guardian that a fatal flaw in Shell’s application was the assertion by Golder that fracking would cause “no adverse impacts”.
“The National Environmental Management Act specifies that environmental consultants must not be biased.
“Golder Associates played along with Shell’s strategy by conjuring a far-reaching blanket finding that no adverse impact will occur as a result of Shell’s activities on any environmental aspects, socio-economic conditions or cultural heritage resources in the Karoo.
“They have risked tarnishing their professional integrity by presenting this biased document as an environmental management plan and could be charged under the Act.”
Detailed questions about the review, sent by the M&G to both Shell and Golder, were not answered. Pasa and the department of mineral resources have 120 days to decide on Shell’s application.
Life’s not a gas when you live near the wells
The mayor of Dish in Texas, Calvin Tillman, decided to leave town when his sons repeatedly woke up at night with mysterious nosebleeds.
Tillman told the Huffington Post recently he had spent his time in office fighting to regulate natural gas companies that have drilled 60 fracking wells into shale. But when his five-year-old son awoke with a severe nosebleed in the middle of a night filled with strong odours from the wells, he had no choice but to leave.
“He had blood all over his hands, blood on the walls, our house looked somewhat like a murder scene,” he said.
Nosebleeds reported by many residents living near the thousands of wells dotted around the American landscape are just one reason why fracking is under intense government scrutiny in the United States.
A moratorium on the gas-extraction technique has been imposed by at least 160 communities in the US, as well as in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Canada’s Quebec province.
In February, the New York Times published government documents that showed unacceptably high levels of radiation in drinking water near some wells. The documents revealed that waste water from some wells was being hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.
Gasland, a documentary by Josh Fox exposing the dangers of fracking, which has been shown at various locations in South Africa, was a runner-up in the “best documentary” category at this year’s Oscars.
And in a special report on “The great shale gas rush”, National Geographic reported late last year that fracking wells had destroyed the Pennsylvanian idyll of a young couple, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich. After settling on 10 acres of long-fallow farmland, the couple found themselves surrounded by an industrial panorama that included four wells, a gas processing plant, a compressor station, buried pipelines, a three-acre plastic-lined holding pond, and a road with truck traffic.
“It’s ruined our lives. That’s what it comes down to,” said Chris Hallowich. “It’s ruined our plans that we had for the kids. It’s ruined what we thought was our perfect 10 acres.”
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressure to break up rock formations and release natural gas.
A fracking well can produce millions of litres of waste water, which is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens such as benzene and radioactive elements including radium, all of which can occur naturally underground. Other carcinogenic [cancer causing] materials can be added to the waste water by the chemicals used in the fracking process.
Shell’s environmental management plan said it would use “green” chemical additives in the Karoo. The critical review responded that this “is misleading as it is unknown what the chemical composition of the fracturing fluids will be”.
“Many of these chemicals are carcinogenic, hormone disruptors, mutagens [gene disruptors] or simply toxic to various organs or to the ecology. Others are secret or proprietary mixtures,” said environmental researcher Glenn Ashton.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has documented diesel and radioactive material in fracking waste water. It said that it could not be made safe. According to a recent report in the New York Times radioactivity in the waste water in Pennsylvania, which has roughly 71 000 active gas wells, is sometimes hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum federal limit.