Controversial resource may power up South Africa

Potentially huge gasfield to be explored but the environment is at risk.

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As South Africa mulls a fleet of nuclear power stations, another energy contender could soon deliver electricity – gas.

The country’s desert region, the Karoo, could hold as much as 485 trillion cubic feet of resources, making it one of the largest shale beds in the world. After years of delay a formal exploration process is now about to get underway.

Exploration was first discussed prior to 2010, but environmental concerns and court action have delayed work being done. The Karoo is a semi-desert with arid plains home to wildlife such as large buck, leopards and more. It also supports sheep farming.

Most of the area relies on ground water pumped from boreholes, which environmentalists say risks being contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The Karoo is also vast – it comprises about one-third of South Africa’s surface area. However, one study by the University of the Western Cape showed it contributed only 5 per cent of the country’s GDP. The same study said the single biggest economic activity was servicing long-distance vehicles travelling through the region between inland urban centres and the coast.

If proved, the Karoo’s gas reserves could drastically alter the future of the country, much as its gold and diamond discoveries did a century before. The energy major Shell has said it will invest US$200 million in six exploration wells.

A study by Econometrix, an economic research organisation said fracking could add up to 200 billion rand (Dh55.91bn) a year to the country’s GDP and create 700,000 jobs. The gas could potentially supply power to South Africa for 400 years, Econometrix said.

Most of South Africa’s electricity comes from coal but it does have some experience with gas. A small deposit off the south coast was tapped in the 1980s. This well continues to supply a plant outside Mosselbay that converts most of it to diesel, supplying about 5 per cent of the country’s automotive energy needs.

In addition, about 22 trillion cubic feet of gas has also been discovered off the west coast. Plans are underway to build a 400 kilometre pipeline to supply a power station outside Cape Town.

As for fracking, water is the driving concern. The process uses water and chemicals injected into wells to displace gas, forcing it to the surface. Environmentalists say this risks polluting the water table and depleting a scarce resource.

Karoo towns such as Beaufort West run dry intermittently and rely on passing motorists and truckers to deliver water. Cape Town, which nudges the southern edge of the Karoo, is under severe water usage restrictions; residents are now being rationed to 100 litres per day as drought conditions persist.

These issues have caused extensive delay in exploration. However, the government says drilling licences will be issued within the next 12 months.

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