The government declared in April 2011 that the issue of hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo needs to be investigated properly, and put the brakes on granting exploration licences to energy companies. The Department of Mineral Resources promised to lead a multi-disciplinary team to investigate the issue fully. However, not all are happy with how things have panned out. The Treasure the Karoo Action Group Ghas applied to the court to force the department to reveal who will be on the task team. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
The Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) has brought an Access to Information Act application against the Department of Mineral Resources in order to force it to reveal who will be on the task team appointed to investigate hydraulic fracturing.
The TKAG said that the papers lodged in the North Gauteng High Court were a last resort, after requests directed to the department weren’t answered satisfactorily.
Departmental spokeswoman Zingaphi Jakuja said there was no secrecy around the task team. “People come and go in government departments,” she said. “Names are immaterial. They say they want the names of people. The work continues no matter who is in the department or not.”
However, the truth is, names are everything.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a highly contentious method of extracting shale gas from the earth. Fracking releases unconventional gas (in the sense that it is caught in pockets of shale, and needs to be “freed”) from shale rock formations underground and in order to release the gas, the companies dig a well and pump millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under pressure into the earth. The shale rock is fractured, releasing the gas – dissolved in the sort of sludge that results from this process – which is then pumped up to the surface.
The area that will become prospected, should the fracking moratorium be lifted, covers vast swathes of the Karoo, the Eastern and Northern Cape and some parts of the Free State.
This can either be a good thing, or a very bad thing, depending on which viewpoint you choose to adopt. According to anti-fracking activists, the process is hugely damaging to the environment. According to some reports originating from fracking areas in the United States, chemicals that are carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting and toxic have been found in the water and ground around these wells. Companies do not to release the chemical recipes that they pump underground, citing commercial interest, but the suggestion is that the cocktail is really nasty, especially if it ends up in your drink.
On the other hand, fracking holds a certain commercial promise. According to Royal Dutch Shell, the company that has come under the most flak for proposing to dig fracking wells in the Karoo, the project will yield many jobs, which the community really needs.
From a government’s perspective, fracking represents a much needed injection of foreign direct investment.
So really, who you are and what your perspective is on fracking is quite important when it is your job to weigh up the options and decide on whether or not the moratorium on fracking should become a ban, or should be lifted come next February.
And it’s not like TKAG wants to keep certain people out of the process, according to TKAG chairman Jonathan Deal.
“We would like the commission to be completely inclusive,” Deal said to iMaverick. “The technology used in fracking is controversial because there are positive and negative aspects to the process, depending on how you look at it. Everybody in South Africa should become involved, because once we start, it’s not something that we can stop. There are communities in the USA that now wish they could reverse their decision to allow fracking, but can’t. So this is a process that should involve everybody in the country.”
Deal said that the fracking debate shouldn’t just involve the Department of Mineral Resources, from a national government perspective. He mentioned a special interest for the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. Since fracking represents a legitimate threat to the quality of land (Deal obviously comes down heavily in favour of “no” in this debate) that the department might some day want to pass on to black farmers, should it not be taking a deep interest in the matter?
It certainly does appear to be that the minerals department doesn’t realise the gravity of the import that fracking carries for some people – their answer to the high court application suggests the sort of bafflement that comes when logic is defied.
The court application will soon sharpen their reaction. And we’ll all get to know who will be on the task team. One way or another. DM
This article previously stated that the Treasure the Karoo Action Group and the Democratic Alliance were taking the Department of Mineral Resources to court. However, it is only TKAG that is involved in the court action, not the DA. We have corrected the article to reflect this, and regret the error.
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