Shell’s oil exploration plans in Karoo could affect South Africa’s radio telescope bid


The Department of Science and Technology says it will carefully watch a planned natural gas prospecting scheme by Shell in the Karoo. The department will ensure Shell does not violate its rights to regulate the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope operating zone where Shell intends drilling.

Shell’s plans to prospect for oil and gas in the Karoo were starting to raise questions among international partners and could affect South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, according to Val Munsami.

Munsami is deputy director-general of research, development and innovation at the Department of Science and Technology (DST). He was speaking to Parliament’s science and technology portfolio committee on Wednesday. “Obviously, from a SKA perspective, we are concerned about it… In terms of the international lobbying strategy, it’s starting to creep in as well; the international partners are starting to ask where this is going and how it will impact the SKA.” However, he could not say who these international partners were.

South Africa is currently competing against Australia to host the multibillion rand Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will cost around 1.5 billion euros to build and require between 150 and 200 million euros a year to operate. Its will operate for at least fifty years. The SKA will consist of 3 000 antennas. At the moment several antennas have been constructed as part of the precursor MeerKAT project outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.
“One key piece of legislation we have in place is the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which regulates the area in terms of radio interference,” Munsami said to the committee. “Obviously we will be looking at whether, in terms of exploration, there is any radio interference. If there is, we will have to have that discussion in terms of the regulatory framework.”

Munsami said a management authority was being put in place within the department to deal with the matter, and “to ensure regulations are fulfilled in terms of protecting the SKA”. He added that the Department of Science and Technology was also in ‘ongoing’ discussions with the department of energy regarding Shell’s activities.

Nqaba Ngcobo, chairman of the portfolio committee, noted that the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act entitles the Department of Science and Technology the sole right to regulate the SKA operating zone. “There is no way Shell can go ahead with that; the Act does not allow it. It can’t,” he said.

Munsami said the Act was only a couple of years old and was intended to benefit a variety of science projects, such as the South African Large Telescope and other astronomy projects. The SKA project is the biggest test for the Act, Munsami says.

Electromagnetic interference is a big issue regarding the SKA. The Northern Cape was chosen as a site for the SKA because of its ‘quietness’ in terms of radio signals. At the moment, a team from the international SKA technical committee is in South Africa to carry out Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) tests. Similar tests are also being conducted in Australia, Sapa reports.

The level of RFI will be a contributing factor in determining which country will win the bid. The announcement is expected early next year.
“The key issue for us is that while the RFI measuring campaign is going on in South Africa and Australia, that there is nothing happening in the Karoo that requires people to carry a cellphone, or some sort or radio transmitting equipment, or whatever can actually impact on that measurement,” Anita Loots, associate director of South Africa’s SKA team said, Sapa reports. “Although the fracking [hydraulic fracturing used to extract shale gas] may happen quite a bit later, the immediate effect of it is if there are very strong radio signals in that area because of the exploration.”

Bonang Mohale, Shell SA’s chairman, said earlier this month that Shell’s activities would not harm the SKA project. Mohale told the media that Shell was talking to science minister Naledi Pandor. However, Pandor on Tuesday last week denied ever meeting with Shell SA or discussing its exploration plans with Mohale. “I am puzzled as to why Mr Mohale, if the article is correct, would put out such a claim,” said Pandor.

Meanwhile, Kim Bye Bruun, Shell SA communications manager, said the company would comply with the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act. This “will govern the conditions of any gas exploration right in the area surrounding the telescope,” Bruun told Business Day. The terms of the act would be dealt with in Shell’s environmental impact assessment report.

Shell has applied to explore 90 000 square kilometres of Karoo for shale gas deposits. Its fracking technique involves fracturing rock by pumping water and sand underground through drill holes, a process Mohale says only lasts a few weeks. Exploration would take three years, once Shell acquired the necessary permit. A licence would only be granted after public consultation and environmental impact assessments.

Shell applied for a license on December 14 last year and expects a decision on exploration rights on August 12. If all goes accordingly to Shell’s plans, drilling will start at the end of next year, with fracturing starting in 2013. Shell intends sinking 24 exploration wells in the Karoo.

The Department of Science and Technology is not the only party concerned by the Shell’s proposed activities. South African farmers in the Karoo want the exploration to be put on hold until the extraction methods are proven environmentally safe.
“We are asking the minister to put a moratorium on further exploration and especially production of gas until we can be sure the processes that will be used will be safe on the environment and underground water,” Agri SA president Johannes Moller told reporters yesterday.

Last month the government put a moratorium on the processing of all new exploration and production rights in the Karoo, but this moratorium does not affect applications already under review, Reuters reports.

Shell is not the only group looking at shale gas in the Karoo, as Sasol, Anglo American, Falcon Oil and Gas and Bundu Gas and Oil Exploration are also eyeing the region, Reuters reports.
“We realize that if the country wants to draw international investment, we must be energy sufficient, but the process that is to be used [in the Karoo] has not been tested to be safe,” Moller said. Farmers worry that the underground water system in the Karoo could be disturbed and contaminated by chemicals injected during the fracking process.
“If we cannot negotiate this moratorium with the minister then we will go as far as considering applying for an interdict to stop this process until it is proved safe.”