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A ‘fracking’ inconvenience for South African astronomy

meerkat_vision_sm.jpgPosted on behalf of Linda Nordling

South African astronomers fear that an bid by the oil company Shell to drill for gas in South Africa’s arid Karoo could threaten the country’s astronomy ambitions—and scupper its chances to beat Australia to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) of radio telescopes.

The application, received by South Africa’s petroleum agency in December last year, concerns areas near Sutherland, home to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. It would also affect areas around Carnarvon, the proposed epicentre of the SKA, which will consist of thousands of antennae linked up to allow scientists to peer further into space than ever before. The hosting decision is expected in 2012.


Shell wants to use a method known as ‘fracking’ to get at the methane gas, which is buried in underground shale rock. This involves drilling holes and then pumping water and chemicals into the shale to release the gas. The method is controversial; in the US environmentalists claim it pollutes the groundwater and that it can cause seismic events or lead to subsidence.

Groundwater pollution could harm the Karoo’s delicate ecosystems and threaten its communities, scientists say, while air pollution and vibrations could blur the sky for stargazers. The Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), a coalition of scientists and others formed in January, says that a 3-5 year research project would be necessary to fully evaluate the implications of fracking in the Karoo.

South Africa’s SKA team and the South African Astronomical Observatory have both registered as “interested parties” for the Shell exploration bid. The bid should be subject to the country’s Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act from 2007, which protects astronomy sites. However, scientists are concerned that the Shell bid has moved as far as it has without other government departments being notified—in particular the departments of science and technology and environmental affairs.

Shell is expected to produce an environmental management plan for its bid in April.

Image: An artist’s impression of the 80 dishes of the MeerKAT radio telescope on site in the Karoo—a forerunner to SKA / Jeroen de Boer.

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    Adrian Tiplady said:

    Under the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, Act No 21 of 2007, the Northern Cape Province has been declared an Astronomy Advantage Area by the Minister of Science and Technology. As such, any activities that could detrimentally impact the SALT telescope near Sutherland, as well as the SKA and its pathfinder telescope MeerKAT near Carnarvon, would be subject to the relevant declarations and regulations protecting these facilities. This includes mining and exploration activities.

    The astronomy community is therefore comfortable that all measures that need to be undertaken to protect astronomical sites in the Northern Cape province will be fulfilled by Shell and any subsidiaries to comply with the government legislation. We look forward to working with Shell in this regard to ensure a proper understanding of optical and radio astronomy requirements is reached amongst the relevant parties.

    Dr. Adrian Tiplady

    RFI and Site Characterisation Manager

    SKA South Africa

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