South Africa needs research plan on shale gas exploitation

 

South Africa needs a shale gas research plan aligned to government policy and included into the broader government research programme driven by various departments and agencies.

 

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), told delegates at a conference on shale gas undweway in Port Elizabeth yesterday, that the research plan could help develop various expertise related to shale gas exploitation in South Africa.

 

The objective of the conference, titled "The Shale Gas Industry in South Africa: Toward a Science Action Plan", was to highlight critical reports on shale gas in South Africa, analyse the regulatory environment, consolidate common findings and recommendations, and provide a platform for debate.

 

"Some of the objectives of the plan should be to develop national technical capabilities in key focal areas, including pure science, engineering and social science associated with shale gas exploitation", he said.

 

Dr Mjwara added that international experience had shown that shale gas has numerous economic benefits. He pointed out that any scientific plan on shale gas must strike a healthy balance between environmental protection and economic benefit.

 

The two-day conference, hosted by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in partnership with the DST, followed the publication of ASSAf's report on South Africa's Technical Readiness to Support the Shale Gas Industry, and the Department of Environmental Affairs' report on Shale Gas Development in the Central Karoo: A Scientific Assessment of the Opportunities and Risks.

 

Prof. Cyril O'Connor from the University of Cape Town, head of the panel of experts for the ASSAf study, presented their report findings. He said that the amount of shale gas available in South Africa was still unclear with estimates ranging between 20 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and over 400 tcf. It is thought that substantial volumes of such gas shales can be found in the main Karoo Basin.

 

He added that since shale gas exploitation required the use of relatively large quantities of water, greater clarity was needed on the availability of alternative water sources such as underground saltwater.

 

"South Africa urgently needs to assess its technically recoverable shale gas resources given the importance of securing the domestic energy supply", he noted.

 

The country must therefore commit to a balanced long-term shale gas exploitation strategy based upon elements of sustainability, namely security of supply, efficiency of extraction, environmental protection and societal communication.

ASSAf's Vice-President, Prof. Barney Pityana, said South Africa is considered to be an industrial society with a great deal of opportunities. This requires the country to be ahead of its peers in terms of planning. "It means that we have to become aware of the reserves, and how we might sustain the economy in difficult times", he added.

 

It is for that reason that South Africa adopted the National Development Plan – the planning tool that seeks to enable the country to meet its development challenges.

 

Prof. Pityana cited that efforts to grow South Africa's oil reserves and the petrochemical industry have been underway for generations, and started with exploration along the Southern Cape Coast. "So far, though, no substantial findings of oil have been discovered, even though huge resources have been invested in exploration over a very long time," he said.

 

Furthermore, South Africa is known to possess considerable reserves of shale gas and oil reserves in the Western, Northern and Eastern Cape rock basin. "This is because of the geology of the area, and the possibilities of economically available and advanced extractive technology means that this industry is capable of development. It could provide a game changer for the South African economy and could make a major contribution to South Africa's commitments in terms of climate change by limiting South Africa's reliance on the coal industry for its energy needs," Prof. Pityana said.

 

Prof. Bob Scholes from the University of the Witwatersrand, head of the Strategic Environmental Assessment commissioned by the Department of Environmental Affairs, highlighted the risks and opportunities of shale gas for the Karoo.

 

This report identifies four possible scenarios for fracking in the Karoo and the activities that could accompany them. The first scenario is a reference case that does not entail any fracking. The second scenario involves exploration and gas being discovered in small volumes, but it is difficult to access. Both scenarios would likely result in any form of shale gas development being abandoned, owing to low economic feasibility.

 

The third scenario is the discovery of about 5 tcf of gas and would result in shale gas being developed according to a particular strategy, probably small-scale development. Scenario four is the discovery of large volumes of gas which is easy to access and, subsequently, requires large-scale development. About 20 tcf, which Prof. Scholes notes is one order below the volumes initially thought to be in the Karoo, is required to merit such development. "The earlier estimates are based on wishful thinking and confusion between so-called gas in place and economically and technically extractable reserves," he said.

Since the publication of the two reports, it is now necessary for all role players, including industry, academia and business, to come together and work in an inclusive manner with government to develop a plan to initiate and coordinate research in preparation and support for an emerging shale gas industry.

 

Issued by the Department of Science and Technology

 

For more information, contact Zama Mthethwa at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 082 808 3956