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As climate impacts mount, fracking for more fossil fuels is not the answer

14 November 2022 at 3:26 pm

Photo: Canva
Photo: Canva

Providing a framework for fracking in South Africa , even one which attempts to regulate the environmental effects of this destructive process, is not the answer. Instead, if the South African government really wants to uphold constitutional rights and its climate commitments, it must properly consider the cumulative effects of fracking – on climate change, water scarcity and the creation of hazardous waste – and halt any further development of fossil fuels, including future fracking in South Africa. 

What are the long-term effects of fracking? 

Fracking, a term used to describe hydraulic fracturing in which chemicals are injected at high pressure into rock under the earth’s surface to release gas, comes with a wide range of well-documented risks and harms. 

Climate change and pollution: Recent expert local research has shown that in South Africa emissions related to gas productions include volatile organic compounds, methane, particulate matter (including black carbon), and nitrogen oxides. These emissions have a global impact, because they are primary or secondary greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, and also a local impact, contributing to poor health, including respiratory and cardiovascular disease and increased risk for some cancers, as well as adverse birth outcomes for those living near fracking operations. They also affect health and ecosystems at a regional level, as a result of their contributions to harmful ground level ozone. 

South Africa is a country which is already experiencing the adverse effects of climate change and has been identified as a climate change hotspot (an area particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the future). Allowing new fossil fuel development in this context flies in the face of both government’s climate commitments (including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol), and government’s Constitutional obligations to uphold the Bill of Rights, and in doing so, to refrain from exposing the people of South Africa to the harms of the climate crisis.  

“In light of the scientific consensus on the impacts of the climate crisis and the fact that South Africa is a climate change hotspot, any new gas exploration and production in South Africa poses a serious threat to the health, livelihoods and futures of rural and poor communities, women, children and future generations,” says CER attorney Paul Lado. 

Water scarcity and contamination: hydraulic fracturing can contaminate ground and surface water via several pathways, including failures in gas well seals and poor management of the hazardous waste that results from oil and gas production. These liquid and solid wastes, which are produced in large quantities in oil and gas operations, contain toxic chemicals used in the drilling process and hazardous materials brought out of the earth. These include endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and radioactive materials.   

The large quantities of water needed for gas extraction at each gas well also risk depleting local water supplies, straining water resources in our already water scarce region. This impacts farming, existing land uses, and livelihoods of communities in areas surrounding production. The Department of Water and Sanitation’s draft National Water Resources Strategy – 3, gazetted for comment recently, acknowledges that “more water is currently allocated for supply purposes by municipalities than is feasible from an ecological perspective,” and that “water is the primary medium through which the impact of climate change will be felt in South Africa.”  

It is irrational in the face of this reality for our government to be prioritising the development of a nascent gas industry – including paving the way for fracking – when that industry poses an enormous threat to our already scarce water resources.  

The risk of creating large amounts of hazardous waste: The government’s draft regulations attempt to regulate the creation of hazardous waste with several strong provisions. This is a step in the right direction, but as has been established by fracking operations elsewhere in the world, even a single well using fracking can produce between hundreds and thousands of tonnes of waste that requires special disposal processes.  

In the United States, for example, environmental authorities estimated that in 2016, some 4136 million tonnes of waste were generated by fracking in the United States. This figure includes some 4038 million m3 of wastewater — or some 1,615,200 Olympic swimming pools filled with wastewater. Treatment of this water results in some 70 million tonnes of toxic solids.28  

In the South African context this means that the waste management challenge created by fracking would quickly add up. 

Shale gas and fracking are not the answer to SA’s energy woes 

At present there are voices in both the public and private sectors who are calling for further investment in gas in South Africa. Such factions characterise gas as a viable and cleaner “transition fuel” and a solution to the country’s energy crisis. This “dash for gas” has been met with stiff resistance from many civil society and environmental justice groups. At present, government’s plans to procure new gas power have all been challenged, including by way of public interest litigation. For good reason: global scientific consensus shows that gas poses serious threats to human health at every stage of its lifecycle. 

“There is a very real need for the South African government to ensure that any proposals for the exploration or production of gas, including fracking, are considered holistically. If individual projects are examined in a fragmented way it can lead to a proliferation of projects that then have much more harmful impacts on a region, fundamentally changing its character and its ecosystems,” says Lado. 

More broadly, in light of the International Energy Agency’s findings7 that if the world is to avoid irreversible, catastrophic climate change, no new oil or gas fields should be developed as at 2021, our government must commit to a transition away from fossil fuels, because not to do so flies in the face of its own policies and commitments and will lead to increased human rights violations. 

Read more about why gas is dirty and dangerous and why government’s current plans to procure an additional 3000 megawatts of new gas power are vague, unnecessary and threaten the Constitutional rights of people living in South Africa.