25 Shell’s fracking moves in the Karoo

This was first published on April 21, 2011 on 234NEXT[1]

There are some words that those who develop dictionary software appear somewhat slow to catch up on. One of such words is ‘fracking’. While the word is still kept on the fringes of everyday discourse, the process it describes is already pitting citizens against corporate power in North America, Europe, and in Africa.

As the sound of the name suggests, fracking has to do with fracturing. The New American Oxford dictionary defines fracture as ‘the cracking or breaking of a hard object or material … a crack or break in a hard object or material, typically a bone or a body of rock…the physical appearance of a freshly broken rock or mineral, esp. as regards the shape of the surface.’

Fracking has already raised serious problems in the United States and is being questioned and resisted elsewhere. The nearest flash point is the resistance to Shell in their efforts to engage in fracking in the Karoo, South Africa. The community resistance in South Africa is especially interesting in the sense that Shell has been confronted there by their Nemesis: Ogoni activists displaced by their activities in Nigeria.

In the case of the plan by Shell for fracking in South Africa, they plan to bore holes 5 kilometres down into the belly of the earth in order to extract gas trapped in a layer of shale stones. This is another signal that the age of cheap oil is over.

Fossil fuels are being sought for in increasingly less accessible locations such as deep-water locations and in locations previously considered off limits to extractive activities. As someone said, some of the processes can be likened to a ‘societal scraping of the barrel.’

This process is not exactly new, as it has been going on in the USA for decades, according to some records. The causes of current anxieties are primarily two-fold. Companies involved in this business have not released the names and quantities of all the chemicals they use in the fracking processes.

Secondly, the process uses huge amounts of water, a serious concern in a season of water scarcity. After pumping in huge volumes of water, about half of this water is pumped out and the bubbles or gas are removed. The wastewater with all its highly toxic dregs is then disposed of. The question is whether this is handled in a manner that assures of safety.

According to the experts, Shell’s proposed exploration will apparently entail drilling 8 boreholes in each precinct (i.e. 24 boreholes in total) of up to 5 kilometre depth over a three-year period, extendable to nine years.

‘It appears that each well will need between 0.3 million and 6 million litres of water (i.e. a scenario of between 7.2 million and 144 million litres of water required). Shell has been extremely vague as to its anticipated source of water, with no concrete indication being given in the draft EMP or in the public consultation meetings as to where the multinational intends to source the requisite water from.’[2]

While some people argue that there are yet. to be analyses showing actual water contaminations related to chemicals used in fracking, there are several confirming water contamination due to fracking processes.

For one, some of the chemicals used in the process are known as carcinogens. The US Environmental Protection Agency is examining the potential impacts on drinking water of the various stages in the hydraulic fracturing process. Such stages include when drillers mix water with chemicals and sand and inject the fluid into wells in order to release oil or natural gas.

Some 46 House of Representative Democrats sent a letter to the Secretary of Interior in which they stated, ‘Communities across America have seen their water contaminated by the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.’

Other concerns over fracking plans have been raised in Canada and France. A report from the Tyndall Centre in the United Kingdom, and an enquiry by the House of Commons, has trailed the fracking business in that country.

The Tyndall Report found a paucity of information on which to base serious analysis ‘of how shale gas could impact on GHG emissions and what environmental and health impacts its extraction may have; that there is a clear risk of contamination of groundwater from shale gas extraction.’

Fracking folks have enjoyed exclusion from regulation in the USA for years and are very reluctant to accept accountability today. With Barack Obama’s intent to accelerate the weaning of his country from heavy reliance on crude oil imports, the shift to fracking seems good to some investors, irrespective of its highly toxic and water-guzzling nature.

The exportation of that anti-regulation operational latitude to other lands is meeting serious resistance. The people of Karoo are basing their resistance, among other things, on the indelible footprints that Shell’s operations etched into the hearts, veins, and blood of the Ogoni.

The linkage between the Ogoni and the Karoo deserves an applause as ordinary people rise up to ask, ‘what the frack is going on’ and link hands across political boundaries to globalise the struggle and hope for the security of humankind in a globalised world.


  1. No longer accessible
  2. Hevemann Inc. A critical Review of the Application for A Karoo Gas Exploration Right by Shell Exploration Company BV. http://www.imel.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/315/Research/Research_by_Staff/FracturingLegalReportApril2012.pdf  p.3 (accessed 31 May 2016)

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