Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu was tasked on Tuesday with explaining the government’s decision to lift the 17-month moratorium against exploring shale gas reserves in the Karoo. Shabangu said no hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, will take place for now, but hey, drilling is an essential part of the exploratory process. By REBECCA DAVIS.
It was interesting that during Tuesday’s briefing on the controversial issue, Shabangu did not use the word “fracking” once, perhaps out of cognisance that the colloquial term for hydraulic fracturing has by now attracted substantial negative PR. This semantic evasion appeared to do little to stem the concerns of the gathered journalists and environmentalists: the sheer volume of questions directed to the Minister spoke of a prevailing anxiety and confusion among the South African public on the matter.
At one point, indeed, Deputy Mineral Resources Minister Godfrey Oliphant gently chided the audience for their visible lack of enthusiasm. “I expected us to be excited but we look very down,” he said. “When it comes to gas we have enormous resources, and we are changing the landscape of the country when it comes to energy generation. We must be excited!”
Shabangu echoed this point a little later in response to a question from a Farmers’ Weekly journalist who asked why, given that the farmers’ sector might be directly affected by fracking in the Karoo, no representative from the Department of Agriculture had been included in the Inter-Ministerial Task Team on Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing. Explaining that it wasn’t clear how fracking would affect the agriculture sector, Shabangu added, “I hear that farmers are very excited about it.” There was a ripple of disbelieving laughter.
There seemed to be almost as many environmentalists present as journalists, so the Ministry was always going to be playing to a tough crowd. Nonetheless, what Tuesday’s briefing made clear was that the government still faces an uphill battle when it comes to persuading many South Africans that fracking is a good idea.
The notion that fracking in the Karoo is a good idea is premised largely on the United States Energy Information Administration’s “first pass estimate” of a “technically recoverable resource of 485-trillion cubic feet of gas in the Karoo Basin”. A subsequent evaluation of this estimate by the Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa) found that due to limited data, it is “impossible to quantify the resource accurately, other than to say that it is potentially very large”.
Erring on the side of caution, the Task Team reported that even if a far lower amount of gas is produced – 30-trillion cubic feet – gross sales would amount to almost R1-trillion (assuming “indicative pricing” and an exchange rate of R8 to the US dollar). The Task Team’s executive summary concluded: “Even though this process would be spread over a period of 20-30 years it clearly has the potential to have a major impact on the national economy”.
The potential revenues involved were not a major focus of Shabangu’s briefing, however. In terms of positive outcomes, the emergence of a potential alternative energy source to reduce dependence on other fossil fuels was stressed rather more heavily. “Shale gas will contribute towards clean energy and mitigate our carbon emissions,” Shabangu said.
The idea that hydraulic fracturing for gas constitutes “clean energy” is, of course, a contentious one among environmentalists. Greenpeace Energy and Climate Change Campaigner Ferrial Adams scoffed at the notion, telling the Daily Maverick that the government perpetually exhibits “a lot of enthusiasm around dirty fuel, but not enough around renewable energy.”
Those who oppose the practice of fracking claim, among other things, that the chemicals involved can harm underground water sources; that there will be high levels of methane in well waters; and that fracking’s waste water can absorb radioactivity. A 2012 documentary titled Un-Earthed, made by a Karoo filmmaker Jolynn Minnaar, featured interviews with residents of American counties who testified to the emergence of health conditions and contaminated drinking water after fracking began in their area.
Then there are concerns about the amount of water required by the process in a deeply water-depleted region (and a water-scarce country in general). Additionally, there is uncertainty about the relationship between fracking and small earthquakes. This may seem relatively insignificant in a sparsely-populated area like the Karoo, but it is also the site of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project, and there are worries that seismological activity could negatively impact the SKA. On this same point, another concern raised on Tuesday was that dust kicked up by drilling for gas might obscure the famously clear skies of the Karoo, the reason for its selection as the SKA’s home. (The task team has recommended a buffer zone be set up to protect the location of the SKA.)
Many of these fears might come to nothing – Daily Maverick columnist Ivo Vegter has consistently argued that the environmental lobby’s fears about fracking have been overblown. But at the very least, those on both sides of the argument would have to concede that there is a fair amount of uncertainty at play. Shabangu admitted as much. “We need clear conditions to be implemented because this is a new territory we will be entering”, she said. But she also added that “we are satisfied that we have given sufficient time to consider the matter of hydraulic fracturing”.
The time period in question has spanned 17 months, from February 2011 until last week. Over these months, the Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing Task Team has been investigating the issue, with members drawn from Pasa, the departments of Environmental Affairs, Science and Technology, Energy and Mineral Resources, the Council for Geoscience, SKA South Africa, Water Commission and Eskom.
Shabangu was criticised for not having included any members of civil society as part of the Task Team, a point stressed by Greenpeace’s Adams to the Daily Maverick. “It’s unacceptable that discussion on the issue was largely departmental, because there are a lot of vested interests at play,” she said.
On Tuesday, Shabangu attributed the lack of public consultation up till now to financial constraints. “We couldn’t go public with consultation with various people because we had no money to do that,” she said. “We will be carrying out a thorough process now with all stakeholders, going out to meet with affected communities.” She dismissed a suggestion by Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG)’s Jonathan Deal that this was a bit of a topsy-turvy way of doing things – consulting after opening the licensing process for companies to begin gas exploration. “On whose money did you want us to go and consult?” she asked. “We had to go to Cabinet to get a mandate to go and consult, and that’s what we have done.”
If Shabangu seemed a little tone-deaf on this point, she was nonetheless at pains to stress throughout the Task Team’s awareness of environmental concerns. “When it comes to matters of the environment, I will always be concerned,” she said. “Environmental matters cannot just be undermined in the interest of any sector.” If there was a threat to water, the process would be stopped, she said. If there was a negative impact on the SKA project, the process would be stopped. There will also be no hydraulic fracturing taking place for now, although drilling is necessary to asses the extent of the gas reserves. The existing regulatory framework will be extended over the course of up to a year, under the supervision of a monitoring committee.
Licensing bids from five companies, dating from 2010, will now be considered. Shabangu declined to name the companies in question, saying their interest would have to be re-confirmed, but it is known that Shell is among the applicants. No timeframe was given for the issuing of licences, and thereafter applicants would have to bear the costs of lengthy environmental impact assessments.
It is important to note that the task team’s full report, Investigation of Hydraulic Fracturing in the Karoo Basin of South Africa, has not yet been released, even though it was initially scheduled for Tuesday, because it has not yet been edited. As such, the more technical details of its findings are as yet unknown, beyond the fact that the executive summary concluded that neither an “outright ban” on fracking, nor “unconditional approval of hydraulic fracturing”, would be appropriate. As such, nobody need fear that hydraulic fracturing sites will pop up overnight to blight the Karoo’s landscape.
Anti-fracking groups have been galvanised by the task team’s report to take their cause to the next level. TKAG said Monday it would be taking the matter to the Constitutional Court on the basis both that it was destructive to the environment and human health, and that it would fail to deliver the employment opportunities and energy potential claimed. Shabangu was adamant that the potential of legal action would not deter them. “Through the media we have heard that people will take us to court,” she said. “As a government, we have a responsibility to defend our decision.”
There’s not much evidence yet that the issue will become a political football. Both the Freedom Front Plus and AfriForum have condemned the lifting of the moratorium, but the DA on Friday expressed cautious, if conditional, support. Shadow Minister of Mineral Resources James Lorimer said in a statement that “Evidence we have gleaned from countries where fracking is taking place persuades us that it is possible to harvest gas through hydraulic fracturing with low adverse impacts, provided that certain stringent conditions are put in place.” He warned, however, that “if this government’s record in mining is anything to go by, fracking is unlikely to be conducted according to best practice unless it is at the initiative of the companies conducting it”, and said the DA would be monitoring closely. DM