Karoo Fracking Will Go Ahead Despite Water Concerns

Cape Town - Government would stop the exploration of shale gas if it is found that hydraulic fracturing posed a risk to the water table and to the multi-billion rand SKA telescope, the Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu said.

Presenting the executive summary of the department's report on the investigation of environmental and social effects of hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo Basin, Shabangu said the report states certain conditions which may lead to the exploration process being halted.

"We are a water scarce country. If the process is such that there is a threat to water in South Africa, we would have to stop the process... if there is going to be an extremely negative impact on (SKA) and they cannot mitigate it, we may need to stop the process," she said.

Cabinet approved the lifting last week of the moratorium, which was imposed in February last year, allowing licenses for the exploration of shale gas to be issued under certain circumstances.

The US Energy Information Administration has estimated that the Karoo Basin contained a technically recoverable resource of 485 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Under the cabinet decision, the actual fracturing cannot be done now, even though exploration will involve some drilling, said Shabangu.

She also announced that the government would now begin engaging community members and roleplayers affected by shale gas exploration.

Detailing the recommendations by the fracking task team, contained in the report, Shabangu said these included that a monitoring committee be constituted to supervise fracking operations among other things.

The monitoring committee would ensure that regulations are followed and that appropriate regulations, controls and co-ordination systems be established between the next six and 12 months

In addition to the setting up of a monitoring committee, the task team recommended that SKA SA work closely with the department to ensure that the multi-billion rand telescope project is not compromised.

In addition, the task team recommended that ongoing research be carried out in the environmental impact of shale gas and to develop new and better methods for hydraulic fracturing.

Shabangu also added that the government wanted to ensure that there was broad economic participation in the exploration of shale gas and that environmental regulations were adhered to.

Treasure Karoo Action Group chairman Jonathan Deal, who was present at the briefing, asked Shabangu why the government had chosen to raise the fracking moratorium first and then engage with South Africans, rather than engage during the moratorium.

But Shabangu said the government first needed to formulate its position and take a decision on the matter before it met with community members and stakeholders.

However, she said the government is prepared to defend in the courts its decision to allow exploration of shale gas.

She said five companies had expressed an interest in exploration of shale gas and would apply for prospecting licenses as soon as the application process is released, Shabangu said.

The decision by the cabinet to lift the moratorium was made after the submission of a lengthy report by a task team, headed by the chief executive of PetroSA, which looked at environmental factors, technical specifications of fracking, the regulatory framework, impact on SKA and economic implications of a ban.

The task team is made up of the departments of environmental and water affairs, science and technology, energy, mineral resources, SKA SA, the Council of Geoscience, the Water Research Commission and Eskom,

In compiling their report, members of the task team completed study visits to the US, to Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, and to energy regulators in the respective states.

Shabangu said the full report was still undergoing final edits and would be released shortly.

It would be available on the Department of Mineral Resources' website: http://www.dmr.gov.za.

- SAnews.gov.za