Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEDEAT) have signed a partnership agreement for a R20-million, three-year research project focusing on the viability of shale gas exploitation in the Karoo.
NMMU vice-chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz said the university was not taking a stance on whether or not fracking should go ahead, but instead was determined to use “best science and best technologies” to paint a comprehensive picture around shale gas in the Karoo to inform decision-makers.
“It’s not just a question of science, but of socio and economic beneficiation – we also need to take the environment into account.”
A large part of the project will be establishing a baseline for the Karoo before possible exploitation begins, which will be necessary for litigation purposes should things go wrong.
“We need to make sure an entire balance sheet of evidence is presented to the public, outlining the good, the bad and the ugly.” This will help to determine “the best pathway to take”, he said.
Co-leading the project is NMMU’s Prof Maarten de Wit, who heads up NMMU’s Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute (ESSRI), a newly-formed wing of the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) which De Wit founded. He said the potential for shale gas in the Karoo was anything between 20 and 500 trillion cubic feet and was potentially worth trillions of rands.
While it is still a fossil fuel, he said shale gas was 40 to 50% cleaner than coal and 30% cleaner than oil.
“The shale gas industry is potentially massive. It could be a game changer for the Eastern Cape – but it will have the complete opposite effect if we mess up.”
With government planning to lift its moratorium on fracking, international energy companies will soon begin exploration activities in the Karoo – but De Wit believes fracking to test production is unlikely to start before 2018.
“This gives us a near five year window of opportunity to gain new knowledge of the underground water and other natural systems in the Karoo, and use it to establish a forensic baseline that will stand in a court of law.”
The study will also conduct research to determine how much gas there is, how much can potentially be extracted, how the exploitation of gas will affect natural resources and eco-system services, and whether there will be positive socio-economic spin-offs.
MEC Mcebisi Jonas said: “I am excited to launch this partnership with NMMU. I believe it will take a strategic role in informing the decisions we take.”
He acknowledged that fracking was a “complex and contentious” issue among the public – and said the research would contribute towards “dispelling myths and ensuring the issue was understood by everyone”.
He went on to say that shale gas was seen as a “game changer and leveler in many countries”. “It will probably solve our energy supply issues and drive down energy costs.”
The agreement was signed at an open dialogue on shale gas held at NMMU on Tuesday (11 March), which was attended by representatives from Eastern Cape and national government, industry and the public.