WWF questions professor over fracking

Cape Town – The claims by a Cape Town professor that fracking was a solution for South Africa’s energy needs has been criticised by environmental organisations.

“We feel that the issue around shale gas needs to be looked in the broader picture of South Africa’s integrated energy plan, and since that plan hasn’t been produced, we don’t know whether shale gas will meet our trajectory of emissions that South Africa’s announced,” Saliem Fakir, head of WWF’s Living Planet Unit told News24.

Fakir was responding to Professor Phillip Lloyd’s comments that hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo would not have a significant impact on the environment.

“Secondly, I read Phillip Lloyd’s arguments and it’s the usual stuff, people talk about how wonderful our country’s problems are going to be solved because there’s huge trillions of supplies of the stuff.

“Now what he’s talking about is the resource. They still have to estimate – Shell wouldn’t be drilling if they knew how much was available,” Fakir said.

Price

He said there was a difference between estimating a resource and what was economically viable to extract.

“For example, coal resource in the Waterberg is estimated to be about 87 billion tons – only about five or eight billion tons is economically viable. People have to be very careful that they’re talking about the resource or commercial use.”

He was also concerned about the price oil giant Shell would sell the gas, once extracted.

“Secondly, Shell hasn’t really indicated at what price it’s going to sell this commodity. If they’re selling it at international benchmark commodity prices, then we are going to be paying international prices for gases. I’m not sure if that’s going to solve our economic energy problem,” he said.

The WWF’s position on fracking is that the government should focus on renewable energy solutions in SA and the organisation believes that fracking causes more harm to the environment.

“Unconventional gas is carbon-intensive – ie involves extensive greenhouse gas emissions – probably more so than petroleum products and possibly no better than coal.

While natural gas has conventionally been embraced as a relatively low-impact fossil fuel, the full life-cycle of unconventional gas is not comparable. Exploitation of such resources is not compatible with our international commitments to address climate change,” says the WWF Position Paper on Shale Gas prospects and exploration in South Africa.

Carbon emissions

Fakir rejected claims that shale gas extraction would have lower carbon emissions.

“Phillip Lloyd says that he believes that shale gas is going to have lower carbon emissions. There’s lots of conflicting evidence about that. What he’s doing is generalising and simplifying.

“If you were to move shale gas away from likely centres of consumption, the likely footprint of this thing is going to be quite high.

“Drilling requires a lot of energy and that energy has to be brought into the area either through diesel or the existing grid has to be extended and that is reliant of coal-fired power that supplies that electricity,” he said.

The carbon footprint for fracking has not been quantified even though research at Cornell University suggested that the greenhouse gas emissions may be higher than coal.

“It’s not as simple as that, you can’t just unilaterally say that ‘we think it’s going to be lower carbon footprint than coal’ because we don’t know that,” Fakir said.

He questioned Lloyd’s motives for advancing fracking despite a moratorium on the process in France and ongoing cases in the US.

Multiple professionals

“I think he [Lloyd] abuses his credentials. He is also a consultant for these big oil companies. So his professorship is as tangential as the cause he’s promoting. He’s not an independent professor.

“I’d just be very careful. As much as he accuses other people of lobbying, he’s also doing the same, so his views are a bit slanted.”

According to the WWF, fracking is a complex process and requires multiple professionals to assess the environmental impact.

“This is a very multi-disciplinary field. Somebody that knows about fracking – how to drill holes in the ground – doesn’t know necessarily about water. A water expert will be able to tell us.

“I’m not an expert on water; we need to verify some of these claims through good studies as to what the potential impacts are. Just because somebody can drill holes in the ground doesn’t mean they’re a water expert,” Fakir said.

Fakir was concerned that fracking was being proposed as the only way to resolve energy supply problems in SA and questioned how Lloyd could arrive at the figure of “hundreds of thousands” of jobs created.

Transparent

“He has to tell us how he arrived at that figure. I’ll be frank with you, in renewables, if we were to scale it up to 20GW for both solar and wind, we’ll only generate about 50 000, maybe 60 000 jobs.

“We may have other multiplier effects downstream to the economy, but we don’t know those. We’re going to have to verify that. Even I can’t go on a flimsy statement that renewables are going to create 300 000 jobs and therefore we must all get excited about it,” said Fakir.

Fakir suggested that Lloyd was not completely transparent in his support of fracking.

“Phillip Lloyd is a professor but he’s so un-professorial in the way he presents his evidence. He makes these bold statements under the assumption he’s thoroughly investigated these questions.

“I’ve been long enough in this field to know that professors are also biased. I wrote a letter to that effect, saying that he is a consultant and polemicist for the industry.”

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