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Shell searching for natural gas in South Africa

By DONNA BRYSON: JOHANNESBURG

Shell wants to use thirsty technology that could contaminate groundwater to extract natural gas from a semi-desert region of South Africa, but officials from the international energy giant said Thursday that people living in the area won’t be left dry.

The proposal is only in its early stages, but has drawn such opposition — including threats of a lawsuit — that top Shell officials sat down with reporters in South Africa to try to offer reassurance.

Shell’s international exploration chief Graham Tiley acknowledged that using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas requires vast amounts of water. He said Shell will dig wells or import water from the sea to avoid competing for scarce water with residents of the Karoo, a western region known for sheep and ostrich farming and for its eerily beautiful vistas.

Fracking is behind a natural gas boom in the United States, where questions have been raised about its impact on the environment. Shell South Africa chairman Bonang Mohale said Thursday the depth of the wells and layers of steel and concrete will ensure ground water is not contaminated.

“That’s at least three physical barriers,” he said. “We are doing everything possible, within what technology can allow today.”

Fracking involves pumping water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground to force natural gas out of shale.

The technique is decades old, but has come under scrutiny in recent years as its use grows in the United States, particularly when wells are being drilled under heavily populated areas.

Waste from fracking is mainly water laden with salt and bearing traces of chemicals, some of which can cause cancer if they are ingested in large enough quantities. Fracking water also has been shown to contain barium, which is found in underground ore deposits and can cause high blood pressure.

Tiley said Shell would work with local authorities to ensure the waste is disposed of safely.

Natural gas is seen as a relatively clean, cheap fuel. Shell has used fracking to extract it in North America, Europe and Asia, and applied in 2009 for what would be the first such project in Africa.

“We think there are good reasons to believe that there may be gas in the shales of the Karoo,” Tiley said, but added it was unclear how much, or how expensive it would be to extract it.

Shell has to satisfy environmental and other concerns before it can begin exploring to determine whether fracking will be commercially viable in South Africa. Tiley and Mohale said Thursday drilling was unlikely to begin before late next year, and it could take years of testing before it would be clear whether an investment would pay off.

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