Karoo Shale Gas Baseline Research Program gets on the way at NMMU


This project recognises the need for independent robust scientific-based advice to objectively evaluate cost-benefit equations, in light of potential bias and/or sectional interests related to potential shale gas exploitation in the Karoo.

There is arguably a 5-year window of opportunity to gain an understanding of the underground geology/gas/water/seismicity/sill systems of the Karoo and use it to establish a forensic base-line across the Karoo. Without such a base-line, underpinned by a good understanding of the geology/hydrogeology, any contamination or destruction of groundwater- and eco-systems related to fracking and mining of gas cannot be tested accurately or proven beyond reasonable doubt, rendering litigation around externality costs of exploitation of the gas almost impossible.

As part of a 5-year transdisciplinary research program, with support from the Eastern Cape Government, the Africa Earth Observatory Network and the Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute (AEON-ESSRI) of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) will establish a natural base-line framework across the Karoo before the start of hydraulic fracturing to exploit potential shale gas. AEON-ESSRI studies will cover a wide range of interactive projects, including, but not limited to: geo-, soil- and eco-systems, seismicity, water quality, gas sources and leakage detection, shallow and deep geophysics, drilling and (geo-)engineering, socio-economic, legal and rural engagement issues, risk analyses, numerical modelling and data-base management.

Shale Gas Research Program and Student Opportunities

The program leaders, including international collaborators, are looking for a number of graduates with at least an Honours degree in the fields of chemistry, geo- and life sciences, computing, (applied) maths, economics and development studies.  The graduate students are expected to build an interactive team that will also collectively design programs of rural capacity building and development of citizen science.

International Collaborators from RSA, EU and USA universities and Research Institutes will provide transdisciplinary multi-mentorship

NMMU Karoo Shale Gas Project

Geologically, the Karoo Basin covers about half the total surface area of South Africa (0.7 million km2), and just over half of that covers the relatively dry and impoverished Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape and Free State Provinces of South Africa. The sheer size of the Karoo outcrop in South Africa makes it of great interest to Water and Shale Gas resource planners in South Africa.

The lowest rock formation of the Karoo Basin comprise 10-150 m thick organic-rich shale, known as the Whitehill unit, that lie up to 6000m below surface, and, beyond 1500m in depth, are considered highly prospective for unconventional Shale Gas. To liberate this gas from depth, it must be artificially stimulated to flow, induced through rock fracturing techniques using large volumes of highly pressurized water (hydraulic fracturing).

The Karoo has an arid climate, with only 200-400 mm average rainfall, and ground water boreholes form the sole source of water supply to many communities, small towns, farms and other users. In many cases, replacing this ground water source would be impossible, since surface water sources are largely ephemeral. There has been considerable research into ground water in the Karoo Basin over the years, although relatively little has been done in the southeastern part (ECape) of the basin, where most people live and where there is high demand for water and sanitation. Ground water in the Karoo has been shown to travel quickly through the predominantly fractured aquifers, with little “filtering” or attenuation of contaminants. Thin or absent soils further add to the risk of surface contamination.

Recently several companies have applied for Shale Gas exploration licenses, including hydraulic fracturing (Fracking), but the SA Government placed a moratorium on exploration and on fracking. The former will likely be lifted in early 2014 for those companies who applied for licences before the moratorium was gazetted.  Exploration will initially be carried out using ground studies and geophysical remote sensing, followed by 6-20 vertical drill holes to retrieve samples of the Gas Shales, so that a more accurate assessment can be made about the potential size of the resource that presently ranges from 20-500 TRC (Trillion Cubic Feet); and even the lower estimate may turn out to be optimistic, but is still a lot of gas.

A ban on fracking and exploitation of the gas will likely remain in place until at least 2018; and only when that is lifted will it become clear if potential gas will be extractable (e.g. economically recoverable). 

The Gas-rich shales are directly overlain by sedimentary rocks comprising sandstones and mudstones. North of the Great Escarpment these are extensively intruded by a complex distribution of igneous rocks ─ dolerite sills, dykes and ring-structures. The Karoo geology and hydrogeology associated with the dolerite intrusions, and fault/fracture zones, are poorly understood, and are virtually unknown at depths below 150m, except along two deep geophysically imaged (seismic and magnetotelluric) profiles across the south of the basin, and shallower profiles on the high plateau north of the escarpment, as well as rock-core from a number of deep holes drilled by SOEKOR in the 1960s and 1970s (up to 4 km deep). The high temperatures of these igneous intrusions (ca.1100 degrees centigrade) are known to have had a considerable impact on gas-escape from the shales in the geological past, and may have reduced its gas potential. This still needs to be quantitatively evaluated.

Karoo rocks generally have low primary porosities and permeabilities, with exploitable ground water storage and flow occurring in openings such as fractures, faults, margins of intrusive bodies, and bedding planes. Although borehole yields are generally less than 5 Litres per second√, high- and anomalously high-yielding boreholes are located on such structures and provide most of the region’s water supply.

Most existing water boreholes in the Karoo are less than 150 m deep, but the occurrence of deeper ground water is thought to be a possibility in several areas, particularly associated with certain types of dolerite intrusions. Deeper ground water (more than 500 m deep) is generally saline and sometimes upward-flowing, as evidenced by the hot springs found at several locations in the Karoo, and imaged using deep Geophysical Imaging techniques ( e.g. Magneto-Telluric [Electrical Conductivity] surveys).

Ground water quality is generally potable, with total dissolved solids (TDS) concentrations in the range 0.5 – 1 gram per litre (seawater has 35 grams per litre). The TDS fluctuates, however, due to the generally low but episodic recharge occurring in the arid climate, and is brackish in some areas, suspected to be due to upward flow of deeper saline ground water.

The concern is that during and following fracking, which essentially produces a significant number of micro-earthquakes, upward flowing saline ground-water and/or fracking fluids could severely contaminate already scarce ground water sources, via defective gas-wells and/or naturally occurring fracture zones that may be reactivated during fracking induced micro-earthquakes, as well as from spills and leaks on the land surface due to accidents and shoddy work practices.   

Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for shale gas is therefore of considerable concern to the stakeholder communities who fear that deep drilling and fracking for Shale Gas will contaminate their ground water resources, and that they will not be able to obtain compensation.

From 2014 onwards, the shale gas exploration phase will last at least 5 years, and will include environmental impact assessments, shallow and deep geophysics imaging, and up to 20 deep drill holes. Determination of whether the gas can be economically extracted will only later require hydraulic fracturing. Currently the moratorium remains in place on employing this technology in the Karoo.


In all, there is perhaps a 5-year window of opportunity, then, to review and improve our understanding of the deep geology, hydrogeology, seismicity and natural gas-leakages of the Karoo, and to establish a forensic base-line of ground-water quality and water-levels across the Karoo, as well as for ambient noise (microseismic events) and methane gas leakage,  without which any impacts/contamination related to fracking cannot be anticipated and mitigated, or proven beyond reasonable doubt, rendering litigation around the externality costs of exploitation of the gas almost impossible. Regulation will become full of loopholes.


In short, the NMMU study will be of benefit to the Government and other stakeholders because it will provide:

·       An empirically verifiable and independent base line data on key parameters to consider in the decision-making process (energy, water, ground and air pollution, social impact, etc.);

·       A robust basis to engage different government departments and agencies nationally and provincially;

·       A solid basis to engage the private sector;

·       A cohesive basis to engage communities and concerned parties;

·       A sound basis to engage environmental agencies;

·       A platform to engage education and learning institutions

To deliver these ‘goods’ on time, this project will use the 5-year window of opportunity (2013-2018) to:


·       Maximise our understanding of the geology, geophysics and hydrogeology of the Karoo in the eastern Cape, focusing first on the most likely gas exploration areas from available information;

·       Develop a point source map of natural Gas-Leakage sites in the Karoo, as a base line against which to measure anticipated Gas-Leakage around drill- and fracking-sites, as well as at potential future gas-wells.

·       Initiate and complete targeted ground-water and gas baseline studies in a pilot areas for roll-out to other areas once the pilot area is successfully established;

·       Build ground water monitoring capacity in local communities and municipalities through collaborative monitoring and open, transparent data analyses and interpretation;

·       Develop baseline knowledge and open-source data-base management of ground water of the Karoo Basin, especially related to potential contamination to aid ground water management linked to the physical resource and to the socio-economic, institutional and planning requirements of South Africa.

·       Facilitate adaptive capacity-building through Karoo community participation in ground water monitoring, water analyses; large community buy-in for data-base sharing and decision making concerning the exploitation of shale gas; understanding the resilience of  Karoo hydro- and eco- systems;

·       Establish a centre of excellence in ground-water research, teaching and networking at NMMU;

·       Design an advanced NMMU graduate course in applied hydrogeology and shale gas exploration, and an NMMU Diploma in Ground Water Monitoring to provide a recognized qualification local people trained in ground water monitoring and sampling.

·       Initiate a rural Karoo Eastern Cape Shale Gas Experimental Laboratory to scientifically test and model gas and water flow using a controlled single drill/fracking site.

·       The AEON-NMMU based study will provide, on a regular basis, advice to the EC Government about the scientific and socio-economic findings and deliver a unique and independent set of cutting-edge data for regional and national policy planning.


The project will be facilitated through AEON’s Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute of NMMUunder the guidance of principle investigators from the faculties of Science, Engineering, Economics & Business Science and the Humanities. The project will inculcate at least 10 post-graduate and post-doctoral researchers (for details see recent advertisements in Mail and Guardian, and the Eastern Cape’s Weekend POST.


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