Karoo Fracking: SA Coal’s low methane content doesn’t augur well for its Shale Gas

Mike McWilliams
Mike McWilliams

I was an early cheerleader of the fracking potential of the Karoo’s plentiful shale. But the more evidence that emerges, the less enthusiastic one becomes. There are serious issues about the underlying geology as Free State University Prof Gerrit van Tonder warned a year ago. Last week Shell’s Jan-Willem Eggink provided more reasons for caution. And now Biznews community member Mike McWilliams points out if the methane experience in SA coal is repeated with fracking its shale, there may well be a lot less gas than everyone has been estimating. Hopefully these reality checks bring greater sobriety to the thinking of State officials whose approach to the gas legislation suggests they believe it to be a resource offering an untapped bonanza with zero risk. – AH  

By Mike McWilliams

I am very pessimistic about the proposed Karoo Fracking exploration prospects.

This pessimism doesn’t stem from the fact that I am a bit of a Greenie either. If I were to choose an area of South Africa that was ideal for an oil or gas find, the Karoo would be up around first choice. The reasons for this somewhat contrary view is that it is some of the cheapest land available in the country. This, because of the inherent efficiencies of the free market, means that it is some of the least productive land in the republic. Its featureless flatness and low scrub vegetation will not be too badly despoiled by a few more low structures to compliment the already numerous windmills that spike the semi-desert horizons.

No, the reasons why I am not optimistic about the Fracking model is because I suspect it will not yield the bounteous benefits we are told it will. Notwithstanding the strong possibility that government cadres will skim huge kickbacks from anyone foolish enough to spend the money on a scheme that can be expropriated whenever the government wishes, I believe the actual gas potential of the shale underlying the area will not be as productive as that found elsewhere in the world.

The unproductiveness of the shale has nothing to do with the usual South African reasons. It doesn’t belong to a union. Neither does it blame Apartheid for its inadequacy. The white man didn’t steal the gas under the guise of civilizing it and the scourge of Bantu education did not reach the depths where it is found.

The simple truth is that South African coal, and presumably its shale too, doesn’t hold as much methane as coal and shale in other parts of the world.

I know this because some years ago, I was involved in creating Clean Development Mechanisms (CDMs) within the rules of the Kyoto Protocol so as to avoid the Global Warming we have been threatened with for some time. One of the few readily accessible and implementable areas was the destruction of methane emissions from our many coal mines. Methane is of course the same natural gas the Frackers mean to extract from the shale fields in the Karoo.

As far as the Kyoto Protocol was concerned, methane is a much more profitable gas than CO2 in that destroying one ton of methane , according to the UN formulae, would be equal to ridding the atmosphere of eighteen tons of CO2. This would provide the people doing the destruction with eighteen times the amount of Carbon Credits than someone who destroyed an equal mass of CO2. Carbon Credits are a tradable instrument that fluctuates in price, much like a share on the stock exchange.

This South African cocktail of many coal mines and valuable methane seemed like a sure thing. Until I researched the actual methane emissions from our mines.

In contrast to European coal mines, our South African mines were very low yielders of methane. In Europe, practically every coal mine can be made methane-profitable, either by using the gas to heat the community, run incinerators, bottle and sell the gas or simply flare it off.

I found only one mine in the whole of South Africa that had sufficient methane to make a CDM a viable proposition.

The European Methane Consultancy who had a look at the viability of our numbers said two very interesting things. Firstly, they said that our mine safety with regard to ventilation air management was far in excess of that prevailing in Europe. In other words, South African coal mine owners completely overdid the extraction of bad air from their mines, making them very safe and way beyond what is required in European mines. Secondly, they said that notwithstanding the overkill in ventilation, our coal was simply very low in methane content making the recovery and use or destruction of methane rather uneconomic, apart from the single mine near Standerton in Mpumalanga.

This combination of low methane content and ventilation overkill probably is the reason why this country has so few underground methane explosions, especially considering the huge output of coal our mines produce, both to feed our power stations as well as to export around the world through the planets largest coal terminal at Richards Bay.

This leads me to suspect that the shale deposits under the Karoo will be of a similar quality to our coal. That is, low in methane content.

What this means to the Frackers, only they will know. There is an awful lot of shale in the Karoo, so maybe it won’t BEE a deal-breaker, but you can bet your bottom Euro that gas extraction will become more expensive, even when kickbacks are discounted.

We will have to wait and see whether Shell, like Total this week, have a sudden drilling rig breakdown when they factor the extra risk of expropriation, kickbacks and low yield into their calculations.

* Mike McWilliams, a member of the Biznews Community, has been married for 33 years and has three sons. Born in Johannesburg, schooled at Marist Brothers Inanda and St. Charles Pietermaritzburg he was a paratrooper in SADF and the captain of the SA Parachuting Team which won the Bronze Medal in the World Championships. Author of “The Battle for Cassinga”, his career has ranged from TV News cameraman to national marketing manager of Peugeot and running his own design consultancy. His hobbies are opera, hunting and classical music.

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