Mmegi Online :: Earthquakes: What the frack is going on?
Last Updated
Friday 20 April 2018, 13:36 pm.
Earthquakes: What the frack is going on?

The country’s biggest earthquake in history, as well as two other panic-inducing aftershocks, have ordinary folks looking for clues on the cause. Some experts have been quick to blame a controversial Coal Bed Methane mining technique called fracking, while others say the events are purely natural. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, examines the evidence
By Mbongeni Mguni Thu 13 Apr 2017, 13:53 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Earthquakes: What the frack is going on?

The growling and shaking lasted for minutes, so long in fact that, as a commentator said, one could have gotten up, prepared and worn the outfit one wanted to be found dressed by rescuers.

The country’s biggest earthquake, measured at 6.5, thundered from its epicentre in the remote western parts of the Central District, rattling the region all the way to Durban, South Africa and Harare, Zimbabwe in the late evening of April 3. Two aftershocks followed in the ensuing days and as fears grew of an impending end-time earthquake, many searched for answers to the country’s misfortunes.

Among the first responders to the search for clues were environmentalists in South Africa, who quickly pointed a finger at hydrological fracturing better known as fracking. The Coal Bed Methane (CBM) mining technique involves pumping water mixed with corrosive chemicals down to great depths below the surface to fracture rocks and release gas bound in fissures.  Some studies link fracking with the contamination of water sources by chemicals as well as earthquakes.

With some estimates suggesting Botswana has an estimated 196 trillion cubic feet of CBM bound into rocks across the country, and with the kilowatt per hour sale price of the gas representing a 55% discount on the coal used exclusively in Botswana, interest has been high in the fledgling sector for years.

CBM is not only abundant, but cleaner and cheaper, factors which attract greater investor interest these days in global financial markets.

Jeff Barbee, the director of a science investigative NGO, was quick on the draw, penning an article, ‘Did fracking in Botswana cause Johannesburg to tremble’, which sped around the globe, quoted and shared numerous times by environmentalists and other interest groups.

Barbee’s article says the NGO had proven in 2015 that fracking was taking place in Botswana, despite Government’s denials and that one company, Tlou Energy, continues to explore (though perhaps not through fracking he adds) in the area near where the recent earthquakes occurred.

“At the US Government Survey, they map exact earthquake locations worldwide with precision.  According to their latest calculation, the tremor, which shook much of the subregion this week, is underneath the gas well drill sites where Tlou has been operating for at least the last five years,” Barbee wrote.

As in 2015, Barbee again said Tlou Energy was conducting exploration activity on gas wells inside the protected Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

Government, which vehemently denied Barbee’s reports in 2015 and took reporters on a site tour of the area, responded by essentially denying fracking in the CKGR and insisting the earthquake and its aftershocks were natural.

“There are some insinuations in the media that the earthquake was caused by fracking. It is very important to note that the earthquake occurred naturally due to tectonic movement of the earth,” government said in a statement which added, “It was not an induced or manmade earthquake caused by fracking, mining or exploration activities as it happened at a greater depth. An induced or manmade earthquake occurs at shallow depths, is localised and is of low magnitude.”

Tlou Energy, the Australian company at the heart of the reports, has also washed its hands of blame from both the earthquakes and reports of fracking in the area.  Tlou is the country’s most advanced CBM project, with a possible 3.18 trillion cubit feet of gas resources in the central district.

The group’s executive director, Gabaake Gabaake is empathic that the CBM firm does not have a presence in the CKGR,


is not using fracking as a method in the licences it does have and was in no way responsible for the earthquakes.

Tlou’s Lesedi and Mamba projects lie in the western fringes of the Central District, an area near the CKGR and the epicentre of the initial mega-quake.


Mmegi put straight

questions to Gabaake;

Mmegi: Does Tlou have licences in the CKGR?

Gabaake: We do not. We used to have four permits there, being 230/2007, 231/2007, 232/2007 and 233/2007.  These were relinquished a couple of years ago. We only drilled one or two holes and determined the coal was too deep and the potential for CBM was poor, as well as the logistics and environmental sensitivity issues, dissuaded us. We don’t have licences there anymore.

Mmegi: Is Tlou using fracking as a method in your existing sites? Did that cause the earthquake?

Gabaake: That’s just simply untrue. We do not frack to begin with and so there’s no link to us. The wells we have are single lateral wells, which would be double in production.  You cannot frack these wells, they would collapse. Our coal permeability is low and fracking would improve this only over a very small area. Our method exposes a long area of up to 750 metres. Saying our method caused an earthquake is like saying all the water wells in Botswana can cause earthquakes because that’s the same technology and they all go down to about 600 metres. The epicentre of that quake was 29 kilometres below the surface. The quake was caused by plate tectonics and the type of forces involved there are huge, plate type movements, which only can generate that type of force.

Mmegi: The reports around fracking are persistent. Does this discourage, frustrate you?

Gabaake: We are a public company and you will find a lot of information on our website on everything we do. We cannot afford to hide anything. It would be catastrophic for us if anything funny was going on and we tried to hide it. We had an Environmental Impact Assessment approved late last year, which came out of a rigorous process of technical studies, public meetings and others.

Tlou Energy, which has investor montages entitled ‘Extracting Clean Gas from Coal Without Fracking’, is generally hesitant to respond to each claim from lobbyists about fracking. The fear is that responding to the multitude of claims will at some point lend credence to those making the claims.

That is similar concern to one raised by Tristen Taylor, a PhD graduate and long-time earth and economics environmentalists. In a direct rejoinder to Barbee’s article, Taylor said attempting to link the earthquake to alleged fracking would only undermine environmentalists’ campaigns about genuine fracking and earthquake cases.

“The theory that drilling for shale gas sparked off the earthquake is almost certainly false. To extrapolate from the fact that fracking has caused earthquakes in Canada and the USA and then conclude, as some have done, that Botswana’s earthquake was due to fracking is a very dodgy piece of logic. A first-year philosophy student would be severely chastised for such a basic error,” Taylor wrote.

He added: “People and organisations campaigning against fracking lose credibility when they make hasty and incorrect scientific claims. The power to persuade the general public decreases with each falsehood. One of those unfortunate own goals.”

Gabaake is equally unimpressed with the latest claims.

“These views are like a religion to some, where you simply cannot convince them, even where facts are evident.”

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