UP to R1-trillion worth of gas could be trapped under the Karoo, based on a preliminary scientific study which was released yesterday.
The estimated amount of shale gas is at least 20 trillion cubic feet, the study, using chemically tested samples from a borehole near Jansenville, showed.
The announcements came as Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) signed an agreement with the Economic Development Department for a R16-million three-year Karoo shale gas research project.
Professor Maarten de Wit, who will head the research, emphasised that the figures were estimates and that further exploration would determine whether shale gas reserves could be commercially exploited for energy use.
“Shale gas as tight as cement” was found in the Jansenville shale rocks, which De Wit said had been sent to Germany for further analysis.
He said it was likely that exploration by international energy companies would start in the Eastern Cape by the middle of the year, and would last at least five years.
It would include environmental impact assessments, shallow and deep penetrating geophysics and at least 15 deep drill holes.
“There is no doubt exploration will take place soon and the shale gas industry in the province is potentially massive. The trillion rand industry will be a game changer for the economy,” he said.
If the shale gas resource in the Karoo was confirmed with initial exploration studies, De Wit said, hydraulic fracturing would begin in 2018.
He said the university was taking a neutral, scientific and factual stance in the shale gas debate.
Hydraulic fracturing took place at least 2km below the water table and ought not to contaminate the Karoo’s water resource.
However, leakages had occurred in the US because of poor well control and poor cement casing. Parts of the initial NMMU research would be to carry out groundwater monitoring analysis, micro earthquake detection and deep imaging of the Karoo, as well as gas-flow detection.
The initial baseline water monitoring would also be able to be used in litigation in the event of the water table being contaminated, De Wit said.
Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism MEC Mcebisi Jonas said renewable energy sources would start playing a significant role in the mix in the country.
“Shale gas exploitation is seen as a transitioning energy source – while the renewable sector realises significant learning, innovation and cost efficiencies, shale gas will wean us from higher carbonemitting coal.
“But if shale significantly reduces energy costs, then it effectively erodes the case for renewables,” Jonas said.
Cheap energy was a critical component of driving industrialisation, and the Eastern Cape had lost its previous competitive advantage with the soaring cost of electricity.
This had resulted in at least 100 manufacturers in the province having closed down in the past few years.
Following on NMMU’s research, which was funded by the department, “a window of opportunity was to make sure the energy which flows out of the wells in the Karoo does not flow elsewhere”, Jonas said.
It needed to become “the basis for the Eastern Cape, not only to catch up but to assert itself as a core of the South African economy again”.
“If we do not collectively make the case for an agro-industrial-energy complex, nobody else will,” he said.
NMMU vice-chancellor Derrick Swartz said the scale of the exploitation of shale gas dwarfed any other industrial project in the region.
He said the research would be driven by science, not fundamentalism and that the university was interested in data “with all its warts – the good, the bad and the ugly”.
Swartz commended Jonas for his department’s proactive step towards “evidence-based policy-making”.
The research had to mitigate the environmental consequences if exploitation was to go ahead, and once commercially operating, it should be to the socio-economic advancement of all, Swartz said. – Cindy Preller