Shale gas mining is a process that applies the technique of high-volume, horizontal, slick-water fracturing (‘fracking’ or ‘hydraulic fracturing’). It involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into horizontally drilled wells, under hydraulic pressure to fracture the underground shale layers and release gas.

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Fracking facts

An introduction to fracking in South Africa
The moratorium on fracking in South Africa,  endorsed by Cabinet in April 2011 and extended by six more months in August 2011, has been lifted on the 7th of September 2012, following the recommendations of the task team report. The report is available here:

The report also suggested that exploration proceed without allowing for horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, while laws are amended and a monitoring committee is established. Due to the fatal flaws in the applicants' EMP's and other considerations, TKAG will be opposing any licences that may be granted in the near future by legal means.

High Volume, Slickwater, Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"/"fraccing", is the controversial technology used for the extraction of unconventional gas, such as shale gas.  The technique involves a vertical well that is drilled to a depth of between 2000 m and 6000 m, after which the drilling bore turns to drill horizontally for a few thousand meters.  A mixture of 99%-99.5% water and sand, along with 0.5% - 1% chemicals are pumped under high pressure into the well.  This process fractures the shale rock layer, releasing the gas trapped between rock particles.

Fracking Facts

Water usage and contamination risks
Millions of litres of water (about 20 million litres) are required for one frack per well, as well as thousands of litres of chemicals.  These chemicals can range from benign to highly toxic, some of which are known carcinogens.

According to the website, “Just one hydraulic fracture uses the same amount of water as the town of Graaff-Reinet would use in about three days.”

Apart from the intensive water use, the operations of unconventional gas production has caused surface and ground water sources to become contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Read more about this in our Water Pollution section.

Climate Change and natural gas
Shale gas (natural gas) can be used for electricity generation.  Natural gas is a fossil fuel that consists mostly of methane gas.  Methane is an odourless, colourless greenhouse gas with a GWP (Global Warming Potential) of about 70 times that of CO₂ over a 20 year period.  After about 10 years, methane reacts to form CO₂ and water in the atmosphere.

Oil companies often promote shale/natural gas as being an ‘abundant and clean energy source’. Shale gas may be cleaner burning than for example coal or oil, but depending on the life cycle emissions compared to conventional fossil fuels (such as oil and coal), natural gas may be equally harmful to the atmosphere.
This was confirmed in a 2011 study by Cornell University in America.  The upstream leakage rates differ from different drilling locations and companies, depending on a range of variables. The application of the gas also influences the overall greenhouse gas footprint. If shale gas is added as an additional fossil fuel to coal, the overall greenhouse gas impact would increase. Like other fossil fuels, natural gas is non-renewable and limited.   The gas can only provide energy for a few decades, depending on the recoverability and size of the natural gas reserves, before it becomes depleted.
During the fracking process, gas is often vented and/or flared, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Quantities of methane gas near the close to the earth’s surface result in ground-level ozone.

A recent UN study showed that “Ground-level ozone kills farm crops and also adversely affects health.” 

The South African context
In South Africa, the depths of the gas bearing shale rock layers range between 4000 m and 6000 m. This is much deeper than the depths at which shale gas is extracted in the US.

In South Africa, the fracking process can require around 20 million litres of fresh water to frack one well.  According to Shell, there can be as many as 32 wells on one well pad.  This would mean that about 640 million litres will be used to frack 32 wells (for only one well pad).  Each well pad can be between one and two and a half hectares in size.

There can be four to six well pads in an area of 10 km2.  The well pads can be spaced two to three kilometres apart.  This would relate to up to almost four billion litres of water that can be used per 10 square kilometres.  Especially in a semi-arid region like the Karoo, and given the water restricted nature of the country, this is alarming.

Recently, estimates in the Marcellus shale play in the USA have been slashed by 80% after further studies have been conducted.  The same agency that overestimated the Marcellus reserves has also estimated the South African reserves.  Shale gas could result in a wild goose chase.

Currently applications have been accepted by PASA (Petroleum Agency of South Africa) for areas in the Karoo, Drakensberg, West Coast and a few other areas. It has become an issue of national concern and significance.

South Africa is known for its sunny days, abundant wind and long coast lines and would therefore be suitable for solar, wind and wave energy.  Renewable energy sources are still considerably underutilised in providing solutions to the country’s looming energy problem.


Technical Facts

The amount of water per frack per well:
+-20 million litres.
In the USA this volume is about 16.5 million litres, but the wells will be deeper in  SA and therefore more water and chemicals will be required.

Size of the well pad:
Minimum of 1 hectare to about 2.4 hectares. According to Shell up to 32 wells per well pad can be drilled and fracked. 

The average South African plot was around 550m2  during 2002 ( Based on this fact, between 18 and 42 South African plots/houses can fit onto one well pad!

How many truck trips per well just for the water?

According to EPA: about 1600 just for the water. Pennsylvania DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) figures indicate 1667. These are likely to be more in SA, depending on where the water will be sourced from.

How many truck trips required for equipment and other materials?
750 truck trips

Calculation of water usage and truck trips per well pad 

Assuming 20 million litres per well, and 32 wells per well pad, along with the above figures:

To frack 32 wells (one well pad of 1ha – 2.4 ha), 55 344 truck visits to the well pad site.

Shell calls 50 pads a “development area”. Per “development area” 32 billion litres of water will have to be used and about half of that will end up being toxic and radioactive waste water.

Duration from set-up to the first frack:
47 days. (It runs 24 hours a day.)

health and environmental concerns


A myriad of health concerns and risks are associated with natural gas production and can range from mild infections and irritations to cancer.  These risks are not only related to human health, but can also have detrimental effects on ecosystems.  Different stages of the gas extraction process pose different health risks.

In the US, health concerns and a number of contamination incidents have increased as a result of the shale gas development boom.  On 3 March 2010, the US EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) announced that it will conduct a comprehensive research study to investigate the potential adverse impacts that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health.

During construction of the well pads, the noise and dust from operations can be a nuisance. During production, the drilling sites are brightly lit and are active for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  The trucks that haul water, sand, chemicals and equipment, cause damage to the road infrastructure and are a source of pollution, noise and traffic congestion.  According to figures from the Pennsylvania DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), around 1667 truck trips are needed to transport only the water required for fracking for one well.  In the South African context, these numbers are expected to be considerably larger.  These figures do not even take the sand, chemicals and equipment into account.

During the fracking process, risks regarding chemicals spills, loss of control over the well, gas leaks, surface and ground water contamination are not to be underestimated.  Fracking fluid is considered hazardous waste and contamination of drinking water can lead to the disruption of the endocrine system, as well as cancer.

The chemicals associated with natural gas development, can range from benign ingredients used in ice cream manufacturing to extremely toxic and proven carcinogenic chemicals such as BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene, and xylene), arsenic, formaldehyde and others.   These chemicals are known to cause cancer (especially leukaemia), sensitivity of the eyes, throat, skin, body aches, dizziness, endocrine disruption and neuron-disturbances.  Gas vapours lead to extreme respiratory and neuron-related illnesses to only name a few.

Toxic gasses, VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) and vapours can escape and are often vented or flared at shale gas extraction sites, causing air pollution.  Apart from air pollution, there is also a real threat to groundwater and surface water sources.  A number of cases of water depletion, groundwater and surface water contamination, health effects and a few cases of deaths due to explosions  and accidents (source) have been recorded.

Water Pollution

Water pollution risks and opportunities are ever-present.  Chemical spills and cracked well casings can lead to surface and ground water contamination.  The waste water that flows back to the surface is toxic from all the chemicals and contains radioactive elements (TENORMS – Technologically Enhanced Natural Occurring Radioactive Materials) that were present in some of the rock layers through which had to be drilled to reach the shale layer.

The water toxic waste needs to be disposed of.  Various ways have been used by several oil and gas companies, but have mostly been unsuccessful.  Some of these measures include evaporation pits that evaporate the toxic chemicals and water into the atmosphere.  Another technique entails land farming – ploughing the drilling waste, mud, cuttings and flow-back water into the soil and contaminating the ground and increasing the risks of ground water pollution.  Other disposal techniques involve spraying the water onto roads for dust control, or sending the waste water to water treatment facilities that are often incapacitated or unable to treat the water to level of acceptable quality for discharge into rivers or streams. 

Groundwater and surface water contamination resulting from toxic drilling waste water has lead to serious illnesses in humans and cattle, especially due to BTEX chemicals known for causing endocrine disruption and cancer.

Here is one of the many articles available related to water contamination cases resulting from gas drilling and fracking operations:  ( )

Our Frequently Asked Questions

The questions that the Oil and Gas industry can't answer:
  • Can SA afford to introduce an additional fossil fuel to its current energy mix?
  • Where would the water be sourced from for the fracking operations in SA?
  • Where would the toxic, radioactive, hazardous waste and waste water be disposed of?
  • How would the wells be monitored after well completion and whose responsibility would that become?
  • What guarantees could be provided to the public regarding safety of groundwater, air quality, the environment and public health?
  • How many local jobs could be created?
  • How many current and future sustainable local jobs would be lost or replaced by fracking in the tourism, energy and agriculture sectors?

Links to Climate Change Websites