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New National Plan Unveils a Big Energy Trade-Off on the Eve of COP17
Source: allAfrica.com
Source Date: Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Country: South Africa
Created: Nov 23, 2011

The NDP's vision for the energy sector is a reduction on the dependence on coal as South Africa's primary producer of energy. South Africa is historically a high energy-intensive economy made possible by an abundant supply of coal. This over-reliance on coal has made South Africa one of the 20 worst polluters on the planet. With this in mind the NDP seeks to explore other energy sources looking at increasing the contribution of renewable energy and gas. In fact, gas features in a big way in the Plan. The report leans towards lifting the shale gas exploration moratorium that was put in place on 1 February 2011 and on using gas as the main alternative to coal and even nuclear power, though this technology usually boasts of emission reductions too. Estimates from the United States Energy Information Administration place South Africa as having the fifth largest gas reserve globally, although the actual amount will only be determined once exploration drilling has taken place. Until then it remains uncertain whether it will be economically viable to drill for shale gas. The use of gas certainly does have advantages. The one that has been emphasised in the Plan is that it will reduce South Africa's greenhouse gas emissions as it is nearly 50% cleaner than coal. It will also begin to wean South Africa off coal. However, the extraction of gas does not represent a radical step away from dependency on fossil fuels and it will still contribute to some emissions.

What cost does gas come at? Opposition to gas is largely focused on the process of obtaining the gas, the potential negative impacts on ground water resources, and the negative implications on the environment. This is of particular relevance due to the fact that the Karoo is the focal point for exploration. The Karoo is an area rich in biodiversity, but it is also an area which is prone to drought thus there is a heavy reliance on ground water by local communities and farmers. The area is also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which will put even more strain on scarce water resources. Thus gas exploration impacts not only on the natural environment but also on the people who live in these areas. The Karoo, however, is an area that suffers from poverty and unemployment, which is another reason why some people believe extraction of shale gas would provide job creation and infrastructure development and thus aid in reducing poverty. But will the jobs be offered to non-skilled workers and will they be sustainable? And ultimately will the trickle down effect happen as promised? A discussion on these key issues and debates is lacking within the Plan which focuses rather on the economic benefits as well as the fact that it is a 'cleaner' alternative.

Community and activist concerns also raise the issue of negative impact on the environment of the Karoo during the construction phase as well as during the operational phase due to the high volume of large trucks which will be in operation. Fracturing of wells may pose a threat to ground water resources, through contamination by fracking fluids and gas if there are any leakages and if there is any casing failure. Water pollution is a major issue which needs to be addressed. Looking at the contamination of water sources in the Gauteng area due to acid mine drainage, leaves one wondering whether if exploration is given the go-ahead, this will be strictly monitored. Another issue which is important to the debate concerns the water intensity of drilling. It is estimated that the drilling and the hydraulic fracturing of a horizontal and a multi-directional shale gas well will need between 10 and 20 million litres of water, the majority of which remains underground after which some is withdrawn as waste water. Costs are then associated with removing this water and treating it. It has not yet been disclosed where the water would come from and how this water will be treated, thus it appears there will be a competition for the water in the Karoo area.

The Plan appears to suggest that gas will be seriously considered if there is opposition to nuclear power. It states: "South Africa will seek to develop these resources [gas] provided the overall environmental costs and benefits outweigh the current costs and benefits associated with South Africa's dependence on coal or with the alternative of nuclear power". However this does not seem to take into account that South Africa currently does not have the expertise in shale gas, fracking or horizontal drilling. For example only the largest exploration companies in South Africa have 3D seismic equipment and the funds to run it. Thus we would have to rely on and trust that these corporations are transparent and accountable. Another concern is that there hasn't been much public engagement and education on the issue. A recent study by TNS revealed that 46% of the sample did not know what fracking is or they did not have an opinion of whether it should be allowed. Given more time, it is likely that gas will receive as much opposition as nuclear energy. A clear comparative between the different technologies in the Plan would perhaps have provided a better basis for public assessment. This also speaks to the process to develop the Plan. The energy section only received public comment from the NPA jam, an internet-based mechanism to solicit views, whereas the low carbon or climate change section went through a multi-stakeholder process. It seems that the entire Plan could have benefited from a more open and accessible public participation process over a longer period of time.

It isn't only South Africans who are growing skeptical about shale gas as an alternative. Recently the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has called on British Columbia to slow down its gas development as they say that fracking is placing an unsustainable demand on the provinces water and power resources. In addition they believe that if gas development continues to expand it will increase greenhouse gas emissions, thus concluding that we need to shift to renewable energy rather. A precautionary approach is thus needed as much is still unknown. A major study on fracking in the United Kingdom known as the Tyndall Report noted that there is a clear risk of contamination of groundwater from shale gas extraction and thus it must be delayed until such a time that there is clear evidence of its safety. The United States EPA investigation into fracking is now eagerly awaited.

In transitioning to low carbon pathways it is inevitable that trade-offs will need to be made. However, the Plan shows that we may be focusing on the wrong questions. Are these trade offs simply about choosing between different sources of energy or is it about issues around access to energy, lowering high consumption and demand, and about the balancing environmental and social justice concerns? Making decisions to satisfy our international image at events such as the COP17 may ultimately take us from one bad decision to another.

Simbisai Zhanje is an intern and Trusha Reddy a senior researcher in the Corruption & Governance Programme of the ISS.

 

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