Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 92

Thought leader
Fracking in the Karoo:
pollution versus pay-off
Technological advancements over the past decade have led to a rapid rise
in unconventional natural gas production, known as ‘shale gas’, particularly
in the USA and Canada. The large-scale and rapid development of shale
gas has resulted in an abundant and cheap energy source, with lower direct
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than coal and petroleum. South Africa has
the eighth-largest technically recoverable shale gas reserve in the world,
located in three geological formations in the Karoo; surely, then, that should
be cause for celebration? But global concerns about the environmental
impacts of shale gas development and production on local water supplies, air
quality and human health have made the process of extracting this natural
gas – called hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ – a very contentious issue, writes
Katye Altieri.
To frack or not to frack?
The economic value of this deposit has been estimated
to range from 3.3 to 10.4% of Gross Domestic Product
(GDP), while estimates of the number of new jobs that
could be created in its extraction varies considerably,
from 1 441 to 700 000. The potential impacts on GDP
and job creation in South Africa – an upper-middleincome developing country with a 26.7% unemployment
rate – are critical factors to consider when weighing up
the pros and cons between shale gas development and
environmental concerns.
A further consideration is the current power crisis in
South Africa, in which the power parastatal Eskom has
been unable to provide adequate electricity to match
demand. Eskom is in the process of building two new
coal-fired power stations, but this development is greatly
at odds with South Africa’s commitment to reduce GHG
emissions in the coming years. Currently, natural gas
contributes only 2.8% to primary energy in South Africa,
and is used primarily to produce synthetic liquid fuels.
The development of shale gas in South Africa could lead
to a significant shift in the electricity sector, by replacing
coal-fired electricity. In addition, bridging from coal to
natural gas could assist in South Africa’s commitment
to a peak, plateau and decline GHG emissions trajectory,
as gas-fired electricity generation is compatible with
energy from renewables in a way that coal and nuclear
are not.
Air pollution and GHG trade-offs
However, the GHG-reduction benefits gained from shale
gas are not guaranteed; neither does shale gas come
without its own set of air pollution costs. Whether the

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