Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘hydraulic fracturing’

Fracking – it’s not just about the economy, stupid

In Eish!, Politics, Science on September 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

Billy-Bob suspected his borehole had tapped into some methane reserves

Every so often an issue takes root in the South African national psyche that demands intense debate, at the very least some earnest navel-gazing. Invariably such an issue is political in nature, which is not surprising given the fractious intensity of our political heritage. But then occasionally, perhaps a little too infrequently, such an issue emerges from my neck of the woods – science – and sometimes, just sometimes, it opens up a wealth of opportunities for diverse research and analysis.

South Africa’s successful bid to co-host the SKA project is, unfortunately, not such an issue; the reason being is that its main focus is on astronomy; and whereas gazing back in time through the stars in the hope of discovering the origins of the universe may give astrophysicists a wonderful tingling sensation in their loins, it’s way out of the conceptual reach of most people.

But there is something else scientific that is inviting all manner of attention, a lot of it very emotional: hydraulic fracturing, or to use its more common name – fracking. For most people aware of fracking, it has two seemingly incongruent perspectives – one economical, the other environmental.

According to a Shell-sponsored Econometrix assessment, fracking in South Africa has the capacity to secure access to 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas; create 704 000 jobs; inject billions of Rands into the national economy and completely change this country’s energy profile. Volumes of estimated data has been submitted as proof.

According to environmentalists, wide-scale fracking in the Karoo (under which most of the South African shale gas reserves are situated) will both release tonnes of toxic hydrocarbons into the air and contaminate groundwater. They have as their proof their own data, as well as some video clips of tap water bursting into flames.

However, to summarise the fracking debate as essentially an economics versus environmental divide is to miss the opportunity for a broader discourse around the myriad avenues for examination it throws up. Read the rest of this entry »

Coffee linked to homosexual behaviour

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on July 20, 2012 at 10:44 am

“A little less coffee next time, Bob”

When you prod, as I do, at the craggy interface of science, economics and human psychology, you tend to tap into more than your fair share of hysteria. Those branches of science such as physics and astronomy which are beyond the understanding of most people, remain largely untarnished by the interference of those with agendas. However, the more ‘accessible’ sciences, such as medicine and environmental science, attract the attention of people who use emotion, lack of perspective, and an ignorance of the facts to justify their cause.

Case in point: Water Defense is a US-based anti-fracking lobby group, that has been highly successful in bringing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to the attention of the general public. I am neither pro- nor -anti-fracking, but I am pro- accurate reporting. Unfortunately the language they use is highly emotive, and they misrepresent the facts by exaggeration. Here’s an extract from the page on their website under the title ‘Fracking‘:

“The toxic smog created from fracking contains large amounts of ultrafine particles, soot, ozone, and the carcinogen benzo-a-pyrene. In adults, these pollutants are linked to bladder, lung, and breast cancer, stroke, diabetes, and premature death.  In children, they are linked to premature birth, asthma, cognitive deficits, and stunted lung development.”

At a glance nothing seems wrong with this statement. In fact many of the pollutants listed above have indeed been ‘linked’ to various health problems. The problem though is in that word: ‘linked’. Given sufficient exposure to most chemicals could have a negative affect on your health. Sugar, for example, can undoubtedly be ‘linked’ to obesity. Does this mean that if you eat pudding every night, you’ll become obese? Of course not.

What about caffeine being ‘linked’ to homosexuality? Not heard that one? I am not surprised, because I haven’t told many people about it. But this seems the ideal opportunity to come clean about a misadventure of mine.

Many years ago, in my final year of clinical psychology, I conducted research on the effects of high levels of oxazepam and caffeine on rats. Oxazepam (marketed in South Africa under the brand name Serepax) is a sedative and is often prescribed for certain anxiety disorders; and caffeine is a stimulant that, as you know, gets you up in the morning. Like any good researcher I reduced the possible effective variables by using only male rats. Unfortunately, maths was never my strong point; and somewhere in the process of calculating dosages I misplaced a decimal point and ended up overdosing the rats by a multiple of 10.

To cut a long story sideways, all the rats overdosed with oxazepam remained immobile for a full two days…and those (only male rats) overdosed on caffeine…? Well, they couldn’t stop humping each other.

To use the language of Water Defense: “…caffeine is linked to homosexual behaviour…”

Fracking – energy’s abortion debate

In Eish!, Politics, Science on July 12, 2012 at 10:30 am

The subtle subtext of the anti-fracking lobby

For someone such as myself, fracking – or to use its proper name ‘hydraulic fracturing‘ – is a great issue to discuss, because it’s such a messy issue. It’s controversial because it’s emotive. The question is: why is it so emotive?

For a country such as South Africa – where I live – it is emotive because it holds such promise, but at a cost. South Africa sits on the world’s 5th largest reserve of shale gas. Access to such a reserve would transform the country’s energy profile. According to Fin24.com, a study by Econometrix commissioned by Shell has found that it could contribute R200bn (about US$25bn) a year to the South African economy and create 700 000 jobs.

Whereas there is considerably debate around the enthusiasm of these figures, in the South African national psyche anything that could provide both income and employment is worth investigating.

And there’s another issue, a political issue, and something that has captivated the imagination of the country: the possible nationalisation of mines and expropriation of private land. It’s been an on-off debate for many years, given added impetus following President Jacob Zuma’s recent promise of a ‘second transition‘ – suggesting a more rigorous policy of addressing the seeming delays in economic transformation.

It’s an issue that seriously concerns two energy companies – Shell and Sasol – who are hoping to secure the rights to tap into the country’s vast reserves of shale gas. What if they succeed, only to have their operations nationalised?

But the controversy doesn’t stop there; because there’s also the very thorny issue of where the gas is: underneath the Karoo – a vast, largely unspoilt semi-desert that covers almost half the country’s interior, and which is dotted with national parks and farming communities. It’s an environmentalist’s dream, and therefore the thought of it being covered with fracking rigs is giving them nightmares. So environmentalist activists have been very busy painting pictures of destroyed landscapes and contaminated water resources.

So why don’t the energy companies go directly to the land owners in this farming area for the rights to prospect on their land? Because unlike, say, the US, according to South African property law, landowners do not hold the rights to the minerals beneath their land, the state does.

There is currently a moratorium on fracking in South Africa, as the various stakeholders take a breath and analyse the pros and cons; and while they do, the country seems split into two campls: those on the one side who support the country’s choice to determine whether or not it should tap into what’s in its mineral womb; and on the other, those who believe it doesn’t have the right to destroy what nature has given it.

And that’s why debate around fracking is so emotive – it really is energy’s abortion debate.