Fracking will lead to health, environmental damage – expert at Land Divided conference

Despite arguments to the contrary, it seems as if fracking in the Karoo will cause large-scale damage to the environment, the health of people living there and the economy of the area. It could also lead to the further displacement of marginalised people.

Prof David Fig

Dr David Fig

This was clear from a presentation by Dr David Fig delivered at the Land Divided conference. Fig, a South African environmental sociologist, is a fellow of the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute of Policy Studies. The conference, which commemorates the centenary of the notorious Land Act of 1913, was jointly hosted by Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape from 24 to 27 March.

“Research has shown that 8% of methane gas escapes into the air during fracking. This is 28% more toxic than carbon dioxide,” Fig said.

He cited research done by the Colorado School of Public Health that showed acute and chronic health problems are experienced by people who are exposed to fracking activities. Health is severely compromised when Benzene, a known carcinogen, is released into the air.

A study by Cornel University has shown that shale gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than coal. After 20 years the shale gas footprint is 40% larger than that of coal.

For fracking, huge amounts of fresh water are needed. The Karoo is water-scarce and there is as yet no clarity on where the water will come from. Fig pointed out that 93% of water in the Karoo – a water scarce area – is from underground sources. There is a real danger that toxins from fracking will leak into the underground sources.

The areas earmarked for fracking do not have extensive road networks. This means that roads will have to be built, which in turn leads to questions about who will pick up the tab – will it be the petroleum giant Shell, who has expressed an interest in exploiting shale gas in the Karoo, or local authorities?

Building roads will lead to dust pollution, which could have a further detrimental effect on the ecosystems in the area and lead to health problems.

The Karoo is also known for its Karretjiemense – nomadic people who trek from farm to farm looking for temporary work. Mechanisation has depleted their chances of finding employment. Their livelihoods could be even more threatened if farmers who experience damage due to fracking sell off their farms and move away.

“Many of the Karretjiemense have been formally displaced. And there is a real danger that they could suffer further displacement due to fracking,” said Fig.

According to Fig, Shell has made it clear during discussions with him that the petroleum giant will only create 100 local jobs. Expert frackers will be sourced from overseas.

There is also no clarity on how hazardous waste from the fracking sites will be disposed of. Appropriate sites are likely to be several hundred kilometres from where fracking will take place. If the waste is to be transported to this site, there are questions about who will be responsible for the costs.

“South Africans need to seriously interrogate policies and decisions around the fracking issue,” said Fig. – Stephanie Nieuwoudt