The South African Government’s bid to build the $2.5 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope could be undermined by the effects of a mining technique known as “fracking”. These concerns play into the hands of Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett as he travels to Europe this week to promote WA’s bid for the project, which involves the construction of 3,000 interconnected telescope dishes covering one million square kilometres.
Concern has been raised in South Africa that the mining practice of “fracking” in the Karoo semi-desert region may cause light or radio interference, which could, in turn, negatively affect the operation of the SKA project planned for the same region.
The term fracking is short for “hydraulic fracturing”, a method of breaking up rock deep underground, using millions of litres of water, sand and chemicals. The mixture is pumped into the ground under high pressure and is designed to create cracks in the rock, releasing the shale gas.
Over the past months, propelled by environmental concerns, an organised campaign has been run against exploration companies, including Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell, that want to use the fracking mining method.
The South African Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor and Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom, have reportedly dismissed the concerns, saying that they will stop anything from interfering with the project. Pretoria has refused new mining applications for the Karoo while a study into the environmental impacts of fracking is carried out.
It could be useful news for Premier Barnett as he promotes the Australia-New Zealand bid in Europe this week. Similar questions about the effects of fracking on Australia’s SKA bid may also need to be addressed, however, as its planned SKA footprint also covers land being mined. For example, will the SKA project lock away the future mining potential of large parts of Australia?
In Australia, the Greens have warned that fracking could harm Australia’s water supplies. Early in 2011, the Western Australian Greens warned that the groundwater resources in the South-West, Mid-West and Kimberley regions of the State are at risk of being polluted by this mining method.
If there is substance to the concerns in South Africa, it may mean that Australia is the only remaining viable option for the SKA. In any case, the South African Government may actually be better served by forgoing the SKA project to pursue the potentially more lucrative mining option, although environmental concerns may dampen the government’s enthusiasm for mining.
A decision on who will build the world’s most powerful telescope will be made in 2012.
FDI Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme