Scientist worries about negative impact of gas exploration

Gas exploration is not more environmentally friendly than coal exploration.

Mr Karel Lewy-Phillips, director of South African based Environmental Science Solutions Ltd said there is not enough of a distinction between shale and coal bed methane,

“truth be told, I feel coal bed methane operations are worse.”

Lewy-Phillips, a scientist who majored in environmental impacts of unconventional gas at Edinburgh University, took a closer look at the plans to explore for coal bed methane and natural gas on Farms Leeuwpoort and Driefontein on the outskirts of eMalahleni.

He argues that Coal Bed Methane exploration, CBM in short, is a technique only employed when coal mining is not viable.

Lewy-Phillips is worried that the gas exploration will scar the environment and natural resources of the beautiful Highveld.

Out of the starting blocks he is worried about the impact the exploration will have on water resources.
Lewy-Phillips raised the specific concern that to test CBM wells for viable flows of gas, groundwater in the coal seam must be pumped till below the coal seam.

“In Queensland this water drawdown varies between 15 to 65 meters below surface level. The methane in the now dewatered coal bed converts from a pressurized liquid to a desorbed gas. Depressurisation of the over and underlying aquifers occurs, reducing availability of water for human and agricultural needs. Groundwater will be kept below the coal seam for the duration of the coal seam production,” he explained.

This supports the concerns that the two farmers, Messrs Wimpie Glover and Frik van Dyk have.

“I sell fresh borehole water and their explorations will have a negative effect on my borehole water,” Glover said.

“We do not have a reserve of underground water we can rely on. Our underground water runs through veins into our boreholes. Our biggest concern is that once the drillings starts the underground water will siphon away to the lowest point leaving our boreholes bone-dry,” Van Dyk said.

Lewy-Phillips said the vast waste water volumes contain pollutants which include radioactivity, hydrocarbons, heavy metals and dissolved solids or salinity at levels up to six times that of seawater. When stored in large lined and open surface ponds, monitoring and reporting of pollutants and treatment to a sufficient quality for reuse or disposal require specialist trained personnel and that offers no guarantees against pollution.

“Dr Marianne Lloyd-Smith of the National Toxics Network in Australia has first hand experience of leading water treatment technology like reverse osmosis not being able to remove the benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX) carcinogens nor the low molecular weight radioactivity. There are no viable disposal options for the salt nor the contaminated water. South Africa is also lacking pollutant monitoring and reporting guidelines specific to this industry, so what would the ‘responsible persons’ test for. The USA and Australia are unable to treat the water to safe standards for reuse. Groundwater injection or evaporation sprayers are common, as is road spraying and illegal disposal and discharges to watercourses. When treated at waste water plants, the outflow is further contaminated,” he said.

One of the concerns he raised is that most often flooding incidents mix the contaminated water in the lined ponds with torrents that spread by pollutants with floodwater onto farmland.

Lewy-Phillips pointed out that coal seams can emit methane through the soil into surface water. He validates this with the Slumberger-study where it was found that six percent of gas wells are showing signs of leaking as soon as they are drilled and this rises to 50 percent within 15 years, and eventually that all wells fail, would preventing cross contamination of aquifers be possible.

“With eight common well failure mechanisms ‘bubbling in the kettle’ a colloquial term meaning gas migrates from adjacent strata and up the exterior of the wellbore where it can enter springs and surface water.”

Mr Karel Lewy-Phillips, director of South African based Environmental Science Solutions Ltd.

Another warning sign he focuses on is that spontaneous combustion of the dry underground coal seam can occur, and in these events hydrogen sulfide is a concern.

“This can occur through an exothermic reaction, and subsidence of the surface is possible too whether through lowering groundwater or underground fires.”

“We have not had a CBM specific study in South Africa. Modern mobile air emissions monitoring apparatus in the United States and Australia are finding that fugitive or escaped methane is significantly higher than what has been voluntarily reported by industry. Some studies attribute over a quarter of additional Carbon in the atmosphere to the US shale gas fields.”

The scientist is also worried about the air pollution this exploration can have. He said without baseline air quality samples and fence line monitoring studies, parties that are exposed to air pollutants will be unable to attribute any air pollution impacts to the gas infrastructure.

“Noise and light pollution as well as habitat fragmentation and linear pipeline compulsory purchases and pipelines are a reality. Fire and explosions are another unfortunate consequence of a gas infrastructure. Environmental science can mitigate some of the most harmful impacts, but has South Africa been adequately equipped with trained resourced environmental agents,” he asked.

While the third phase of the Strategic Environmental Assessment for Shale Gas Development in the Central Karoo has been closed in 2017, there was no due diligence by the authorities on CBM, which has arguably a bigger land footprint.

Lewy-Phillips believes that in the case of CBM, landowners and stakeholders have been let down in that the authorities have made no resources available to study the benefits and non-benefits, and to allow for informed decision making as present custodians of the land and for future generations.


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