Gas Exploration Southern Cape

Advasol - Gas Exploration Southern Cape

1André: A Pretoria-based company, has applied for exploration rights for natural gas in the Southern Cape over an area covering more than 300,000ha.

Ntokozo: New drilling technology called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ can extract gas thousands of metres down.

Simon: If they get the green light, some people believe that their proposed extraction methods could poison underground aquifers, destroying the agricultural potential of a vast portion of the area. Watch this and you decide.

André: There is no doubt that South Africa is facing an energy crisis.  We are the 13th largest emitter of CO2 in the world and thus we need to find alternative fuels to power our lives.

With the Mossgas project nearby in Mossel Bay, we know that there’s natural gas in the Hessequa district here in the Southern Cape.  But this resource is trapped deep underground and so far it’s been uneconomical to extract but new technology now puts this natural resource within our reach.  But at what cost to the environment and the people that depend on it for their livelihoods?

Fritz Bekker has three farms in the middle of the exploration area. He’s spent a small fortune restoring most of his land to an almost pristine status.

Fritz Bekker – Land Owner: Private owners do a lot for nature conservation.

André: Fritz argues that the threat of gas exploration here is just too great. He should know.  He’s an environmental consultant by profession.

Fritz Bekker: If this company drills for natural gas, on my farm or my neighbour’s farm, and they contaminate the groundwater, then there is no future.

André: Natural gas exploration may be new to South Africa but not in the USA.

In 2005, the US Congress passed the controversial Energy Appropriation Bill. This bill exempts the gas exploration industry from most of the laws that protect water quality. Free of these restrictions, an explosion of drilling for gas occurred over more than 30 states.

With new drilling technology, called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, gas trapped thousands of metres down can now be extracted.

Sand, water and a cocktail of chemicals, is pumped into the well at high pressure. Explosions then fracture the surrounding rock at different levels along its length releasing trapped gas back up the well pipe.
But concern about contamination of groundwater has led to the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency to launch an investigation and the Senate placed a 9-month moratorium on “fracking”.

The company that has applied for exploration rights here in the Southern Cape, is Advasol.  Their main business is financial services and property development and they have no gas exploration experience. They have three applications covering some 300,000ha. They argue that in an attempt to map South Africa's carbon footprint they found methane emissions coming from this area.

Anton Van Wyk, Advasol:  When we saw the emissions, we understand that if we can find natural gas to generate power from its substantially cleaner than coal, we said let’s just investigate it and see what is there.  If there is something we need to explore it further, if there's nothing we go away.

André: But a specialist geological report commissioned by the community’s lawyer Martin Coetzee, argues there are no viable gas deposits here anyway.

Martin Coetzee – Marsec Legal Consulting: The first question the farmers ask is why now and why here?  The next logical question is that which you are looking for, is it there?  What does the geology say? The geological reports that we have says the chance of finding anything substantial is negligible. So their application is not supported by the geology of the area.

André: Soekor, Mossgas’s predecessor conducted extensive studies in the 60’s and found no substantial deposits of gas on land and the only worthwhile gas deposits are deep offshore.

Anton Van Wyk, Advasol:  We looked at their reports.  They’ve done no in-depth studies, no drilling in that area that we’re looking at. The closest were only two holes drilled in the sea relatively close by,  but the issue is we saw the emissions and we want to have a look.

André: But  just wanting to ‘have a look'  means  the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act comes into play. Since all mineral rights belong to the State, these rights can be given to anyone who applies for them, without the landowner’s permission.

Martin Coetzee:  This Act effectively influences how you have to live on your own land.  That is what the farmers want to know. If you get the exploration right you get access to my land, for a fixed purpose, but my land is no longer mine.

André: In their Stilbaai application, Advasol highlights this red area as their main study area.   It lies just west of Stilbaai in an area called Blombos.

But Blombos is no ordinary place. The genetic origin of all modern mankind, lies in Africa and the Southern Cape seems to be where our cultural and artistic evolution began.

This is where Prof Henshilwood and his team discovered a small cave containing beads and bone tools dating back over 80,000 years. It’s the earliest known evidence of abstract art. Any exploration could destroy archaeological deposits dating back 150,000 years.

Anton Van Wyk, Advasol:  We've excluded, or we plan to exclude those sites from our area and we're working together with archaeologists to stay outside of certain areas that are sensitive to them. Like I said, if we drill a hole it’s the same as drilling a borehole through a cave.

André: But the Hessequa Municipality, the local authority for this area, is having none of it.

Lorna Scott – Deputy Mayor of Hessequa Municipality: This is the place that the human mind was first really developed and we would do everything in our power to prevent this project from getting off the ground altogether.

André: What are your main concerns about this application?

Lorna Scott:  What are your main concerns about this application? First of all the Hessequa Municipality has adopted a 20-year vision, which is a green vision, and this particular project, as such is not sustainable because in the first place it’s a fossil fuel and in the second place it will actually impact on the environment which is already endangered and we have several projects that we started such as wind farms, we've got solar farms planned as well as bio-digestor farms, for alternative energy.

André: Before their application can be approved, Advasol  had to develop an environmental management programme.  But Fritz argues their documents are misleading.

Fritz Bekker:  This application is fairly misleading in that they indicate this block as the Stilbaai study area, but their documents are worded in such a way that they say they’re going to do their initial exploration here but the following farms are not excluded and these are the farms. These people are thinking: “Fortunately it’s not at my place, fortunately it’s at Blombos” because that’ what the map says.

Ntokozo: We now look at “Fracking”, the new technique proposed to release the natural gas trapped deep below the surface.

André: It's not a case of just one drill. Each dot on Fritz's map is a potential drill site. Each drill will bore down to about 2000m right through two large aquifers that the entire region depends on for their survival.

Fritz Bekker:  I don’t know how you’re going to stop the groundwater you drill through the get to the gas from running into the borehole and getting polluted. Then you have to pump out the groundwater to get to the gas. You can’t keep the groundwater in the air, it has to be stored somewhere. There’s no budget in Advasol’s documents for that.

Anton Van Wyk, Advasol:  Number one, we have machines that we put out on the ground, where we can see exactly where the aquifers are and contrary to popular belief, the aquifers are actually not that extensive in the area. Should for some reason you have to go through an aquifer, you must remember that there’s casing.  As you go down you put casings through the area, so it effectively stays … your whole drilling process stays away from the aquifer.

André: It’s all about water and in an environment like this that has been declared as a disaster area due to the drought  we can’t afford to gamble with this precious resource. Which is why I needed an informed opinion.  Etienne Steyn has been in charge of water with the Hessequa Municipality for 21 years.  He should know.

Etienne Steyn – Hessequa Municipality:  That which I have read of late about it, is that the gas comes out of the ground under such tremendous pressure, that it will contaminate all underground fissures. Make no mistake, it’s going to happen.

André: So it’s safe to say that if there’s one accident, the water of the whole area will be contaminated?

Etienne Steyn: Everything underground is connected and it will certainly contaminate other groundwater over a large area. The big question is how Advasol plans to extract the gas .... if they find it. Their EMP lists 'fracking of wells' as an impact on ground water.   So, do they plan to use this highly controversial method?

Anton Van Wyk, Advasol:  Gas will naturally come out, and that process might stop at a point with the natural gas just coming out of the earth at your hole, and then you might need to put up a pump to pump that gas out. The fracking process is not required in what we expect to find.  Fracking is used for scale gas which are the Karoo formations which all geological evidence shows is not in our area.

André: But the big concern is that once the boreholes are in,  they could turn to fracking to extend the life of each well.  Lisa Bracken from Divide Creek in Colorado discovered what can go wrong.

Lisa Bracken:  This is back where it was first discovered. Just an eruption of bubbles fizzing all over the place, in the reeds and in the water.  We've been here 18 years and this is the first time I've seen anything like this. It's funny, it just started happening the day they started fracking. Okay, let’s go and light it. Oh yeah. It burns! Keep your face out.

André: Environmental impacts are one thing, but there is also an impact on human health, none of which has been addressed by the exploration company.

Dr Theo Colborn is one of the world's leading authorities on endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment.  She has been studying the chemicals used in fracking.

Dr Theo Colburn – Environmental Health Analysis: Well, around 50% of the chemicals cause kidney damage, cardiovascular problems, and the next and very troublesome, are the neurological effects.

André: Gas storage also emits volatile compounds known to cause mild to severe irritation of the skin, eye, sinuses, nose, throat and lungs.

Weston Wilson – Environmental Protection Agency USA (EPA): Last summer in an effort to track down how much volatile organic carbon was coming from the oil and gas industry, a unique study was undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency and EPA brought in some infrared camera and turned them towards these oil and gas facilities. Under infrared light, the volatile organic emissions were visible. They look like a mirage. From my own point of view as a technician, I just found it very alarming that EPA technically has described how toxic these materials are. Toxix at the point of injection and still come out with a summary that says they don’t need to be reported of regulated.

André: South Africa has strict laws to protect our water.  But so did the USA until Congress exempted the gas industry from them. Our laws also demand  that affected communities  be consulted. Many of them claim they weren't.

This is what we do know: The EMP is focussed on the Blombos area. Yet, most of the farms that are targeted, are here in the Stilbaai area and there’s never been a public meeting in Stilbaai, to inform the 4,000 residents who will be affected, about what is going to happen.

John Gear – Chairman: Hessequa CPA:  In short we are totally opposed. We believe this should have been a deep, serious consultation, but they decided not to hold a meeting here.

André: The  Hessequa Coastal Protection Alliance is a newly formed group, representing hundreds of property owners in this area. John also argues that Advasol has acted illegally.

John Gear:  They've represented themselves in various ways which has not been what we understand they're up to. They've been marketing themselves as doing water exploration, rather than gas exploration. They are in breach of the law and we believe they should be prosecuted.

 André: The Minerals Act is very clear.  Without a mining permit, Advasol may not conduct any activity relating to their application and they must notify and consult with landowners about their plans.  Ernest Oosthuizen says he is one of many farmers here who believe Advasol has broken the law on both accounts.

Ernest Oosthuizen – Local Farmer & Landowner:  I’m very disappointed because, under false pretences information was gathered on our farms, that will now be used and that was not what we gave permission for. We gave permission for a groundwater study and we never got any information about the groundwater, because, as Johan Koekemoer admitted to me it was just a ploy to get access to the farmers’ land.

André: Fritz Bekker took these photographs when he found them on a neighbour’s farm.  This is Johan Koekemoer, listed as a shareholder of Ice Finance, which through various companies, owns Advasol.  The vehicle is also registered to Ice Finance. Fritz also identified the equipment as being electro-magnetic equipment not commonly used for finding water.

Ernest Oosthuizen:  Yes, these are the photos of the double-cab bakkie, the white Ford bakkie, in which they drove on our property and this is Johan Koekemoer in the photo. He was with Jaco for this study they were conducting.

André: But Advasol claims they were simply testing their machines.

Anton Van Wyk, Advasol:  We got written approval from most of them.  They had approval from all the farmers to put the machines on their land to test and what they did for the farmers was they found water for them as well.

André: But Ernest claims, as do many other farmers, that no mention was ever made of gas exploration, and he doubts any farmer has received a water report.

Ernest Oosthuizen: No! If I knew anything about gas exploration I would have never given them access to my property. For me, it is poor form because this whole gas exploration project started with a lie on this farm and the question I ask, is how many surprises are ahead for us in the process and what will the end of it all look like?

Fritz Bekker: If this application goes ahead in this way, we’ll reach a point where nobody will know what the impact will be and we will be confronted with an impact that can’t be managed.

André: Fritz, how far are you willing to go to put a stop to this process?

Fritz Bekker: I’ll fight as forcefully as the law allows me to.

André: Ostriches have the largest eyes of any land vertebrate and can spot predators from a great distance. The surrounding community will no doubt also be keeping a watchful eye on future developments.

No one argues the need for alternative energy, but when it places at risk THE most precious resource we have, can it even be seen as an alternative? Either way, this fight is far from over.

Simon: It seems as though there is going to be a bit of a battle between the locals and the developers. We will keep an eye on it.
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