The three-year R20-million project, co-funded by the Eastern Cape government and the university, is a world-first, in that it will give rise to public data about shale gas potential and the sustainability of its possible exploitation – which can then be used as a baseline comparison worldwide.
“We want to do this research from a completely neutral standpoint, without taking any money from energy companies,” said project co-leader Prof Maarten de Wit, who heads up NMMU’s Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute (ESSRI), a newly-formed wing of the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON), which De Wit founded some 10 years ago in collaboration with 17 other scientists from all disciplines to address complex problems affecting “our commons” – the earth, its people and resources.
“The Karoo is one of the few major basins in the world where you can still develop a natural baseline. All the other major basins in the world, in the United States, Europe and China, have been drilled for oil and/or gas and suffered severe distortions of their natural plays.”
With government planning to lift its moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas, international energy companies will soon begin exploration activities in the Karoo – but De Wit believes fracking to test production is unlikely to start before 2018.
“This gives us a near five year window of opportunity to gain new knowledge of the underground water and other natural systems in the Karoo, and use it to establish a forensic baseline that will stand in a court of law. Without such a baseline, any contamination or destruction of groundwater and eco-systems or induced earthquakes related to fracking and the mining of gas cannot be tested accurately or proven beyond reasonable doubt.”
The study will also conduct research to determine how much gas there is, how much can potentially be extracted, how the exploitation of gas will affect natural resources and eco-system services, and whether there will be positive socio-economic spin-offs.
“Whether one is for or against its exploitation, it’s critical to find out more about the value of South Africa’s shale gas resource.”
Seismometers, unmanned drones, airplane-helicopter hybrids called gyrocopters, extensive community involvement and the participation of experts from a broad range of disciplines are all key to NMMU’s project, which is recruiting graduates with at least an honours degree to work as an interactive team in the fields of chemistry, geo- and life sciences, computing, applied maths, engineering, economics and development studies.
The study will closely monitor the exploratory activities of industry, specifically noting any changes to the natural environment in these areas. “We will be able to see how those areas change over the three years of our study.”
The NMMU group also has its own small drill site – and has already carried out some research on the site’s core to determine the potential for shale gas and ecosystem response following the research experiment.
Another key aspect of the study is the development of “citizen science”. “We want to get the community involved, particularly women and pupils in rural areas… We want to teach them how to take water samples from wells and either send them to us or take the measurements and interactively communicate with us by mobile phone. This could lead to the establishment of small entrepreneurships.”
The team will be holding frequent “townhall” meetings with the public to share information.
Prof Maarten De Wit.