Get the frack out of my Karoo

Oh good, we’ve found a new way to ruin the environment

Matthew Du Plessis: “Fracking” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. In the good old days, it was a wholesome substitute for an unprintable expletive – used to its highest glory and fullest effect in the television series Battlestar Galactica. Hearing Starbuck curse was an object lesson in the poetry of vloeking. It was from the heart. The new meaning of “fracking” doesn’t come from the heart. Instead, it’s a punch to the gut. The word “fracking” is a convenient abbreviation of the phrase “hydraulic fracture”. I’ll tell you more about that in a second.

First, let me set the scene. Picture, if you will, the Groot Karoo. Graaff Reinet. Ostrich territory. Dusty, scrub-covered terrain. Angora goats. Sheep. Boreholes. All right. Now hold that image as you cast your mind halfway around the world to where Big Energy has turned its attention from the PR disaster in which oil is engulfed, to the relatively unexplored miracle of natural gas.  Until recently, it was very difficult to get to, but new drilling methods are able to clear a way down.

“Hydraulic fracturing” involves injecting vast amounts of chemically treated water into the cavities created in the drilling process, the pressure of which then fractures the rock formations around it, allowing the gas trapped in the shale to be harvested.

It turns out that many of the land owners who have leased their property out for this process are having a bit of a rough time. Sure, the actual equipment is about the size of a small van – hardly takes up any space at all. But it squirts some apparently rather dodgy chemicals into the ground. Which trickles down into the groundwater – and if the land is serviced by boreholes… well, you can imagine.

But if you can’t, the documentary film Gasland shows footage of people turning on the taps in their home, letting the water flow, and then bringing a lit match near to the running water. Have you ever seen running water, coming out of a tap, catching fire? Watch Gasland. In some instances, we’re talking fireballs.

In the film there’s also footage of farm and domestic animals with hair falling out, testimony from families who have developed serious and chronic illnesses, and energy executives insisting that there’s nothing wrong with the water – yet in the same breath refusing to drink any of it. Of course, the companies involved in the fracking deny there’s any risk to the public. They’ve got studies to prove the chemicals they use cause no harm to the water, the environment or to humans.

Our Karoo. Which lies atop a vast – and evidently gassy – shale formation. They’re lining up for it! Shell International and oil and gas company Falcon already have a licence to scout for gas. And potentially flood the Karoo’s groundwater with tasty chemicals.

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