South Africa is at a critical juncture in our history. How best do we preserve and nurture one of the earth’s highest concentrations of biodiversity and satisfy our growing regional inter-dependent energy needs?
I attended the Greenest Event for the Green Times, hosted on World Environment Day in the luxurious surroundings of the Sandton Sun. The event was well attended with approximately 100 souls, many from SA’s most profitable corporations. It’s the Greenest Event’s 3rd year and it was heartening to see many high flyers earnestly listening to debates on pertinent environmental issue such as fracking, Zero Growth and SA’s long term energy plans.
The context was set by Dr. Peter Lukey and Dr. Chris Hartnady who delivered keynote addresses regarding issues facing the country’s top level long-term energy planning committees.
How much coal is realistically recoverable in SA?
“South Africa will reach peak Coal production around 2016-17 at around 21 Billion tonnes,contrary to the often cited estimates of 400 year reserves that gloss over rising costs of energy needed to mine deeper coal beds. In the 1920’s it took about 1 barrel of oil to recover 100, the ratio is now approximately 1 barrel to recover 20 barrels,” said Dr. Lukey.
Our ‘peak’ approaches, followed by deficits
Issues like this need to be seriously considered when investing in new coal power stations and long-term depreciating fixed assets. South Africa will in fact have a 400 tonne deficit by 2030. Investing in coal also locks SA into technologies that negatively affect climate change, while investing in solar can make SA global leaders.
Dr. Hartnady introduced the concept of “ethics for geologists” – similar to the Hippocratic Oath for doctors. In essence mines need to make “all efforts not to harm the earth” and restore or improve environments to pristine conditions. Some carbon capture experiments (smoke from coal stations is pumped back underground) have resulted in “hell fires” burning deep underground near Witbank. This is endangering the headwater of the Vaal River. These fires cannot be extinguished and it’s not possible to guarantee that gases will not reach the surface through adjacent porous rocks. This is an example of Geology going horribly wrong, with potentially dire consequences.
Nuclear power was conspicuously absent from the agenda, an industry fraught with danger and hampered by limited known uranium reserves worldwide, potentially leading SA and other Nations into yet another cull-da-sac in the near future.
Groundwater protection not guaranteed
Clearly it’s time we begin exploring renewable options such as harvesting one of the richest irradiation levels in the world from the Northern Cape. This leads us directly to the next hot topic currently being discussed in the Northern Cape: fracking. High level presentations were delivered on the technical details of Fracking, with particular emphasis on Shell’s current fracking plans in South Africa. One key weakness is that like Carbon Capture there is currently no viable way to guarantee contaminated water (150 domestic swimming pools per “frack bomb”) does not leak into groundwater and “compete” with domestic and agricultural water for Northern Cape Communities. Literally thousands of “fracks” creating underground “ground fractures“are set off per well. The trucks used to supply water and infrastructure needed to assist truck drivers working on these “wells” will put extra pressure on the area’s resources, indelibly altering the character of South Africa’s Karoo forever.
It has come to light that estimated recoverable shale reserves are in fact far less than what could realistically be cost effectively recovered. There are plans on the table to drill at least 6 wells over the next 6 years to explore the unknown geological topography of the Karoo before any conclusions can be drawn.
The Greenest Event was in hindsight a well-balanced event without extreme corporate or environmental view points. While events like this will not solve environmental issues that affect all of us, it is important that people keep getting together to have these conversations.
A well-maintained Grid powered by renewable energies and increased capacity to pipe in gas from Mozambique and even bigger reserves in Tanzania and Kenya provides a tantalisingly close solution. It’s important to get vastly different viewpoints seated at the same table to compassionately resolve our continent’s long-term energy and life style needs, without compromising our shared and inherited environment.
By Green Times student reporter Crosby Menzies, Johannesburg
For more info on this event, head to their official website.