Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Ivo Vegter
- 15 Jun 2012 02:50 (South Africa)
The authors of the unpublished draft paper that caused a storm of headlines about the upward flow of groundwater in the Karoo and the inevitability that freshwater aquifers near the surface would be polluted by shale gas drilling, Gerrit van Tonder and Fanie de Lange of the University of the Free State Institute for Groundwater Studies, do a determined job of defending their position in the comments on my column published on Tuesday. It is worth reading those responses and some of the debate that followed. (Fair warning: do try to dodge the trolls.)
By e-mail, however, came a new and noteworthy contribution from Peter Rosewarne, team leader and principal hydrogeologist on the Karoo Groundwater Atlas project. With apologies for his delayed response to the questions I had sent SRK Consulting, which managed the research, Rosewarne weighed in on the geohydrology professor’s “U-turn”.
He says that “the team members canvassed so far do not agree” with Van Tonder, who “was a peer reviewer” and “concurred with the Atlas contents”.
Rosewarne says he is not aware of any new research that has been done since the publication of the Atlas to so dramatically change Van Tonder’s position.
“Most [research team members] disagree and are mystified by his ‘u-turn’ and haste. However, at this stage we have not seen or read the full paper.”
He adds some useful context:
“Should shale gas exploration be given the go-ahead in SA there will be a large amount of research work required, including [the land and airborne geophysics and exploration drilling mentioned in the Atlas] to obtain a better understanding of the deep environment. This will be done at a measured pace with data and results being rigorously debated and reviewed, amongst a broad team of Karoo hydrogeological experts (and others) so that a sound and defendable scientific basis is laid for the flow model(s) developed.
“We [the SRK Consulting group that developed the Karoo Groundwater Atlas] hope to be part of the team developing the understanding and conceptual model for flow dynamics in the Karoo to assist in sustainable and environmentally friendly use of natural resources.
“Much of the frenzy around this topic seems to me to be premature; if the government lifts the moratorium on shale gas exploration then there will be ample time and funds made available to carry out the necessary research to form a sound scientific basis on which to make further decisions. If the moratorium isn’t lifted, or a decision is further delayed, then end of story/opportunity.”
Another observation Rosewarne made is that the hot springs noted in the Groundwater Atlas are not saline, as might be expected if Van Tonder’s theory that they preferentially conduct water from deep saline aquifers is correct.
Michael Baker, who identifies himself as a retired member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers with extensive experience of hydraulic fracturing, addressed a number of the technical questions that the description of hydraulic fracturing by Van Tonder and his co-author, Fanie de Lange, raises.
In particular, Baker explains why, in an environment that follows modern drilling practices such as those imposed by UK regulators, it is unlikely that well-bore annuli – gaps between either the well sleeve cement and the steel sleeve itself, or between the cement and the surrounding rock – will form and create a preferential pathway for the upward migration of fracturing fluid. His comments are highly technical, but worth reading, if only to illustrate the level of scientific knowledge that exists among drilling engineers.
As his “final and jackpot question”, Van Tonder cites a paper by Tom Myers, who was commissioned by an environmental group to conduct a similar study for the Marcellus Shale in the US. This paper was not news to me, and several credible scientists have raised doubts about it.
For example, Don Siegel, professor of Hydrogeology at Syracuse University, notes several mistaken assumptions in the Myers model, including about the nature and permeability of the rocks overlying the Marcellus shale, and the flow patterns of deep groundwater itself. He concludes: “More than anything else, the public needs to know that a mathematical model of groundwater flow, such as the one prepared by Myers, constitutes only a representation of reality – it is not reality itself. Before any math model can be built, a scientifically plausible conceptual model needs to be developed. As it relates to this particular paper, Myers has developed an implausible model that predictably leads to implausible, and in my judgment, completely wrong results – from simple first principles of geologic and hydrologic understanding, let alone acceptable model development.”
This seems to square with the conclusions in the Karoo Groundwater Atlas: “...as was agreed by the workshop delegates, there is so little data available below 300 m that it is difficult to 'populate' the deep conceptual model, beyond making intelligent hypotheses. This uncertainty is indicated by the liberal use of question marks.”
Terry Engelder, the geosciences professor at Penn State University, agrees that Myers’s model contain errors that skew the results, including assuming that the pressure of fracturing will drive water away from gas-bearing shale, rather than driving it up the well. The well, of course, is the ultimate “preferential pathway”, being far more “permeable” than any other. It is designed both to sustain pressure at the fracturing stage, and prevent leakage of gas and water into surrounding rock (and aquifers) during the production stage. Any brine that comes up from deep aquifers will come out of the wellhead, as planned.
“In my view the issue is settled, which is that it can’t happen on a time scale that is important to mankind,” Engelder said, as reported in BusinessWeek.
Emily DeSantis, of New York’s regulatory authorities, makes a similar argument to my own, about why we don’t see saline water in freshwater wells already, if deep water moves up existing preferential pathways: “The high salinity of native water in the Marcellus and other Devonian shales is also evidence that fluid has been trapped in the pore spaces for hundreds of millions of years, implying that there is no mechanism for the movement of fluids between formations.”
The Myers paper seems just as far from establishing 100% certainty as Van Tonder’s draft, and likewise seems aimed more at generating simplistic, sensational headlines. Both may merit further research to validate or falsify the speculative conceptual model, but that’s all. Neither merit a declaration to the lay media that shallow groundwater pollution will be an inevitable consequence of gas drilling.
Mike Muller, a member of the National Planning Commission and former director-general of the Department of Water Affairs also commented:
Thanks Ivo for digging this up – I had seen Gerrit van Tonder’s comments, which made little sense as reported, and wondered about their basis.
We have a real problem with the abuse of science by lobbyists in this area and need to keep documenting the detail – one benefit of online media is that editors don't get tetchy about it.
From my experience in a previous life as DG of Water Affairs (and a little of my own MSc research) I can confirm that the dolerite intrusions are targeted by people who are drilling for water in the Karoo. If they were associated with an upwelling of saline water from deep formations, that would not be the case. There is thus practical evidence that saline flows along dolomitic pathways have not generally been significant, even if there are a few hot springs.
One related dimension that you don't pick up is the possibility that, because of the history of dolerite intrusion into the shales, any gas initially present may have long been dissipated – “baked off”.
That’s why we need to have some test drilling. This fracking debate may well be a lot of hot air about a resource that's not there. But wouldn’t it be nice to know what our options are?
As for the management of the wastewater, that is a relatively simple technical problem, which will be a lot easier in the Karoo (hot, dry lots of evaporation and limited and predictable flood paths) than elsewhere. For Gerrit to say that organics can’t be removed by treatment is plain nonsense!
And of course the fluids at 3,000 metres are under pressure. That’s how the gas, if it’s there, is going to get to the surface. So for Gerrit to raise fears about an “Old Faithful” type geyser is descending into the really rather unscientific scare tactics.
If I was a Karoo farmer (as opposed to rich retiree wanting to privatise the natural amenity), I would be negotiating with one of the prospecting companies to improve my farm’s roads and communication infrastructure and a build a properly designed and instrumented well-field to provide water for the initial fracking that I could use afterwards to expand my operations – a couple of hectares of irrigation will always be useful.
Any offers, all you Karoo landowners? I could fancy a retirement as a fracking farmer...
With this level of opposition among scientists and others who ought to be in a position to know, it seems rash to run to the media with a claim to be “100% certain” of an upward flow gradient that would make pollution of Karoo groundwater aquifers inevitable, especially since Van Tonder was in a position to know the simplistic sensationalism such a claim would cause.
In last week’s Farmer’s Weekly, Van Tonder is quoted as saying polluted water from deep levels could reach surface aquifers in as little as “months or even weeks”. In another article of which I have seen a draft, due to be published in next week’s edition of the same magazine (full disclosure: I originally said “this week” in the comments, but have since been corrected by its author, Roelof Bezuidenhout), he will be quoted saying “20 years to thousands of years”. This is not only a rather large margin of error, but it is a blatant self-contradiction, which makes everything else Van Tonder says suspect.
It certainly does not support the headlines in the popular press, nor does it support the continued imposition of a moratorium on shale gas exploration. The longer we postpone the necessary research, the more gas will be on the world market from other sources, and the less likely it becomes that the vast Karoo reserves will benefit South Africa. DM
- Let me mansplain statistics to you
- Free the hippies! Don’t ban their drugs!
- Which principle: precaution or progress?
- How to kill a baby, naturally!
- Miserere mei, the Ebocalypse is here!
- Advanced technology or magic?
- Tourism: Still doing okay? Let’s fix that!
- Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor
- The gun genie and its bottle
- On energy, environment, and regulatory independence
- South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry
- Grab shale gas opportunity, but avoid opportunism
- It’s about who you don’t vote for
- Free markets as a moderate position
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey