Frack the Earth, Frack the Water!

By Michelle Simon - 27 Jan 2012 9:33:0 GMT
Frack the Earth, Frack the Water!

Hydraulic fracturing via Shutterstock

Karoo, South Africa: The Earth is a colossal bio-geo-heritage entity worth protecting beyond measure. The Earth formed 4.6 billion (4 600 million) years ago, forming the inner layers of the planet, over slow-measured geological time, the upper layers, the atmosphere and water vapour formed making life on Earth possible. The Karoo, a semi-desert biome, is a site of ancient geological processes, from the layers of natural ground profile from the surface to deep within the earth's crust, to the underground water supply.

One would be none the wiser about the pristine liquid flowing beneath one's feet as one stands on this desert terrain. But indeed there is a supply of freshwater , the only drinking water source, in this arid landscape where hardy beautiful flora survive in co-habitation with the passionate rural-dwellers. The landscape is sparsely populated with farms, small-holdings and towns steeped in rich cultural and political history; it's a place once escapes to when the superficiality of the urban centres rankles your spirit. So, when the most distressing news was wired across the landscape that one of the biggest oil companies in the country was looking at cracking open the Karoo and extracting its gas resources and decimating its natural and socially-dependent life-giving resources, soil and water, all hell-broke loose and the quiet, tranquillity was transformed into a location of social-environmental mobilisation. The communities in the Karoo were adamant that they would not be steam-rolled by a unilateral heavy industry in economic collaboration with the state.

Sasol, the main contender, in a joint venture with Royal Dutch Shell, multinationals Statoil and Chesapeake Energy, Falcon Oil & Gas, and Bundu Oil & Gas; applied to the South African Department of Mineral and Energy for exploration permits. The state issued a moratorium last year on fracking due to the rising contention, and has yet to rule on its final decision. While the state deliberates, civil society has been lobbying and advocating international, generating massive support, and have exerted their 'Right to Know' in demanding through court procedures for full disclosure of all documentation on the project's. In the meanwhile the moratorium deadline ends this February. Sasol did withdraw from further exploration early December 2011, a brief respite for the Karoo residents, but uncertainty looms.

Deep within the earth archaic processes led to rock formations trapped with gas and oil. The Karoo, is underlain by the Karoo Supergroup, representing many different rock types formed under different accumulation conditions, with the oldest forming the base layers. Shale is one of these rock layers. Shale a distinguishable rock, smooth, fine grey, red, brown, black, it breaks easily due to the layered profile. Black shales have a high organic content, acted upon by high temperatures within the Earth creates conditions for the production of shale gas and shale oil. What happens is that gases no matter where they are above or below ground will rise due to lower density; however underground free movement is restricted and the gases are trapped between rock layers. The oil giants profiteering off natural resources, using polluting technologies to acquire wealth, are running out of conventional oil reserves and have found a panacea for new wealth, its shale gas. This way they continue with fossil-fuel energy unabated, with no regard to their existing environmental destruction, that is more a thorn in their side. They have no intention of redeeming themselves and becoming climate protection proponents moving to a green economy.

So the oil merchants want to embark on a deeply intrusive process, of drilling straight down into the earth's layers up to 6000m and then making a sharp left or right angle turn to access the horizontal layers wherein the gas lies trapped in the shale profiles. So besides the intrusive drills that alter the tectonic stability, immense quantities of water are required for the concoction of chemicals (toxicological impacts to the ecosystem and humans), the water is used at high pressure to break-down the rock, fracturing it for gas extraction. This is hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. In water scarce region like the Karoo, this seems absurd.

Biophysical Impacts of Fracking

The biodiversity of the Karoo on the surface and below will forever be altered, from surface and groundwater contamination, to geological instability and potential seismic activity caused by fracking into unstable zones or fault lines, floral and fauna habitat destruction. A consideration of high impact but never considered in macro impact assessments, the microlife decimation, the deep layers of the earth are home to some of our most archaic species that are older than humankind surviving in extreme environmental under extreme temperature and conditions. The list of impacts is endless yet specific.

Social Impacts of Fracking

The most critical social impact in a water-stressed, groundwater dependent semi-desert region is water. The livelihood and survival of the Karoo dwellers is intrinsically tied to their water supply from the aquifers. The industrialists never saw for fit to invade the Karoo landscape as it's been associated with barren resources, but their desperation to colonise new unconventional fossil-fuels is driving them beyond the traditional economic hubs. While the Karoo reeks of the inequities of apartheid with extreme poverty in black communities and more affluent white communities, the latter the farm owners who serve to lose land space due to the legality of mineral rights and land rights being held two divergent allotments. If one owns the land surface one does not necessarily own the mining rights. The reality of racial poverty dynamics is being preyed upon by big business that is well aware that its 17 years gone and the black communities are in dire straits, jobless, foodless and homeless. This target is age-old and has forever been used by industrialists in creating greater divides from the red (workers and labour unions) and green (environmentalists) to the desperate poverty divide versus white conservation concerns. While those imbalances need to be rectified, promoting an increase in the carbon economy is not the way to go. Promoting further environmental ruin and profits before health and environment, will not benefit the long-term sustainable of the poorest of the poor, but will line the pockets of the polluters.

If the arguments on the technicality and potential impacts of the process and trust in these industrialists and their spin doctors don't shake your indecision on this debate, then surely the track record of heavy industry and petrochemical complex should, all of whom have revealed unforgivable human health and biophysical lethal contamination to communities, workers and nature.

We need to unequivocally promote and fight for cleaner technologies that promote skills development, job creation and poverty alleviation and ensure that the very blue liquid that gives us life, is regarded as a national conservation heritage.

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