The South African government has taken a big step towards fracking in Africa’s biggest economy that is likely to lead to months of heated debate and court battles.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth. The process requires vertical and horizontal drilling and the injection of pressurized fracking fluids, water and sand to extract the gas.
Oil companies see fracking as a potential boost for energy exports, jobs and foreign investment. Conservationists argue it will destroy ecosystems found in the semi-desert landscape of the Karoo, where much of the shale gas is located.
On April 29, 2011, the minister for mineral resources, Susan Shabangu, placed a moratorium on applications to explore fracking in the Karoo while her department conducted investigations. That ban on exploration was lifted on September 7 and the Investigation of Hydraulic Fracturing in the Karoo Basin of South Africa report, which the cabinet based its decision on, was released four days later.
Derek Light, an attorney for farmers in Graaff-Reinet, was unhappy with what he called a hasty decision to lift the moratorium.
“The task team could not have effectively performed its function in such a short a time. It should have performed a strategic environmental assessment in the broadest possible terms which would have enabled them to make a well-informed decision that would be in the best interests of the people of this country,” says Light.
Light was pleased to see that the report recognized the importance to revise the country’s regulatory framework, in order to control fracking.
Jonathan Deal, chairman of Treasure The Karoo Action Group—the official opposition to fracking in South Africa—says that the country’s first reaction was “let’s frack” instead of investigating other forms of energy.
“There is natural gas, offshore, in reservoirs which do not need to be fracked in order to remove it,” he says.
“We plan to lodge an appeal if and when exploration licenses are issued,” Deal says.
Ferrial Adam, a Greenpeace Africa climate and energy campaigner, also believes that the country should consider other forms of sustainable energy.
“Greenpeace’s research on ‘Advanced Energy Revolution’ scenarios shows that it is possible to create 50% of electricity from renewable energy by 2030, if we have the same political determination that government seems to put into fossil fuels,” she says.
Adam says that in a dry country like South Africa this decision by government is short-sighted.
“Contamination of groundwater aquifers and surface waters can occur due to fracking operations and through the disposal of waste waters. Small amounts of carcinogenic hydrocarbons are harmful to humans. In some cases, this waste water is minimally processed before being dumped into surface waters feeding public water supplies, or is held in ponds that may lead to releases of the chemicals into the environment.”
The head of Living Planet Unit, WWF South Africa, Saliem Fakir, says we can only see the outcome of fracking by looking at extractive industries at present. The track record for communities is rather dismal. The national coffers and private industry may benefit but the problem of impoverishment could be the inheritance of the local setting. Fakir pointed to countries like Nigeria, a country where Shell is active, to show how countries that are rich in oil can be poor.
“Extractive industries have boom and bust cycles. They often attract lots of labor and people from outside that leads to conflict, social pressure and displacement of local interests, the truth is that resource rich countries tend to have high levels of inequality. Elites tend to capture the rents and leave out the poor. We may see a similar phenomenon with shale gas if the extractive process suffers from poor governance and oversight,” says Fakir
Bonang Mohale, chairperson for Shell South Africa, was pleased with the details of the report.
“The suggestions made by the task team are in line with our exploration plans for the Karoo Basin,” says Mohale.
“South Africa needs energy now. Approximately 10 million people in South Africa do not have access to electricity. At the moment, South Africa is a net importer of energy. This means that South Africa needs the full range of energy sources. In combination with other energy sources, including renewables, gas could help secure South Africa’s energy future, while creating sustainable and permanent jobs for South Africans.”
Shell is preparing to submit a comprehensive environmental, social and health impact assessment (ESHIA) that is in line with the National Environmental Management Act. Shell promises to continue working closely with the people of the Karoo and South Africa to address concerns and ensure that they benefit from shale gas exploration.
Group Media Manager for Sasol Limited, one of the biggest energy companies on the continent, Alex Anderson, says that Sasol gave up its fracking license last year.
“We concluded an extensive technical study of the area and then decided not to pursue further exploration activities in the assigned TCP area. The decision was based on subsurface technical and operational considerations and was unanimously taken by the partnership,” said Anderson a few months back.
“Sasol has taken note of the decision by the South African government to lift the moratorium on shale gas exploration in the Karoo region. We continue to be very interested in the upstream oil and gas business landscape, which includes the shale gas in the Karoo and elsewhere. As a consequence we continue to monitor these developments with interest and if new opportunities present themselves we will actively evaluate and pursue if they are attractive from a technical and commercial perspective,” says Anderson.
The report commissioned by the department of mineral resources indicated that during the exploration phase, only normal exploration, would be allowed. This excludes hydraulic fracturing but instead includes a process whereby drilling, geophysical and geochemical mapping can take place.
The report spoke of the economic potential fracking would bring to the country. According to the United States Energy Information Administration there is an estimated 485 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas in the Karoo Basin, which could reduce the national dependence on other fossil fuels. It mentioned the environmental and socio-economic implications of water use. and the disposal of the fracking fluids. The task team said that due to the high volumes of water to be used and the possible contamination of water with the fracking fluids, they would need to conduct further research into water sources.
The report called for aa re-evaluation of South Africa’s regulatory framework to ensure that any possible negative impacts would be alleviated. A monitoring committee will be appointed to ensure a comprehensive and coordinated framework and the supervision of operations.
Now the conservationist and protestors await the application for the first exploration license and will see the applicant in court.