Anti-fracking alliance criticises Sa Government approach

Environmental campaigners promise to fight government’s plans to allow fracking for shale gas in the Karoo

A South African government plan to allow fracking in the vast Karoo semi-desert has been condemned as “completely irresponsible” by environmental campaigners, who have vowed to fight it in court.

The Karoo, the name derives from a San phrase meaning Land of the Great Thirst‚ is bigger than Germany at more than 400,000 square kilometres. It contains about 100 towns and a million people and has been celebrated by poets for its bleak beauty. But this week Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa‘s deputy president, announced in parliament that scientists had advised the government to allow fracking for the benefit of the economy.

On Thursday Rob Davies, the trade and industry minister, said the cabinet had agreed that the exploration of shale gas in the Karoo in Western Cape province should start before next year’s general election. “A potential game-changer is shale gas,” he said.

“My little knowledge of this is that Mossgas [the world’s first gas-to-liquid refinery at Mossel Bay in Western Cape] has a resource of one trillion cubic metres of gas. The gas fields of northern Mozambique, which have just opened, have got about a hundred trillion cubic metres of gas.

“The shale gas deposit estimates suggest that it is multiples of the Mozambique level. If that is the case, this could be a very significant game-changer in terms of the energy situation in South Africa.”

As in Britain and America, plans to allow drilling for shale gas are fiercely controversial in South Africa, where Shell is among companies that have applied for exploration rights. Lobby groups claim that the technique degrades the land, pollutes ground water and fouls the air. They also say fracking could ruin the Karoo, a precious natural asset spanning 40% of the country’s landmass and dating back hundreds of millions of years.

Davies promised that the government would consider the concerns raised by anti-fracking groups. “Of course we are not going to do this in any kind of irresponsible way,” he said. “We obviously have to bear in mind all the environmental implications including, of course, the nature of the relationships with any company that gets any kind of permit, what is going to be the delivery in terms of any positive impact on the economy.”

South Africa is in a constant race to keep up with energy demands. The governing African National Congress (ANC) has brought electricity to millions who were denied it under racial apartheid, but the strain on the national grid, which relies mostly on coal, has led to warnings of more power cuts this year. With the mining sector struggling as a result of labour unrest and falling commodity prices, there is pressure to find new energy sources to boost sluggish economic growth.

In a study of 32 countries, the US Energy Information Administration found that South Africa has the fifth biggest reserves of potentially recoverable shale gas with 485 trillion cubic feet. But activists argue that fracking is not the way to harvest this.

Jonathan Deal, the chairman of the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG), criticised Davies for short-term thinking on complex environmental issues.

“Firstly, we believe that such a decision will have an impact which will endure far beyond the election cycle of the government,” he said. “This decision cannot be rushed through before next year’s election. It will be completely irresponsible.

“Secondly, [mining] minister [Susan] Shabangu has promised on various occasions to consult with the public of this country prior to making any decision on shale gas mining. This has not happened, and the people of South Africa at all levels are entitled to be heard on an issue of this magnitude.”

Julius Kleynhans, the head of environmental affairs at AfriForum, a lobby group that has formed an alliance with TKAG, said: “Government is selling votes with this move, but it is an empty promise. Even if government issues the licences, exploration cannot legally proceed. We will not allow our constitutional rights to be breached; the alliance will appeal against government. These court cases will take a long time.”

Business Day – Fracking exploration must wait 


LETTER: Exploration must wait

JULY 25 2013, 00:00
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu.  Picture: GCIS

Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. Picture: GCIS

IT IS exactly the spectre of “uninformed and possibly costly decisions” that demands a firm hold on any decision to issue exploration licences for shale-gas development in South Africa.

Gavin Keeton’s evident support for shale gas is somewhat undermined by what could be perceived as incorrect assumptions and incomplete information (No time to waste in South Africa’s shale-gas exploration, July 22).

It was the International Energy Agency which in June stated in the Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report that “Power generation from hydro, wind, solar and other renewable sources worldwide will exceed that from gas and be twice that from nuclear by 2016”.

Having regard for South Africa’s well-established solar irradiation potential, one would have expected that this would have been of interest to Mr Keeton in view of his concern over the country’s energy resources.

Absent too, is comment on the potential for South Africa to purchase its gas requirements from close neighbours and even develop its own offshore gas reserves.

It is a possibility that when the holistic costs of onshore shale-gas development are considered, the price per unit of purchased or developed offshore gas may be more favourable, and without the environmental and water risks associated with high-volume horizontal slick-water fracking.

Sasol, which in 2011 relinquished its application to mine shale gas in the Karoo, was unequivocal in saying the company expected drilling in South Africa to be “five to six times” more expensive than in the US: about $30m a well in South Africa.

I stand to be corrected, but as far as I know, private landowners are not in a position to deny “permission to drill”.

There is a requirement for the licensees to approach and consult with a landowner but at the end of the day a mining licence issued by the Department of Mineral Resources will triumph over the rights of the landowner.

I cannot support the statement that the “debate … is taking place in an emotional but largely uninformed fashion” simply because there is no formal debate as Minister Susan Shabangu has routinely conducted her work in secret, breaking a number of promises to consult with South Africans on this issue.

The contribution of formal groups such as Centre for Environmental Rights, Treasure Karoo Action Group and others has long been one of well-informed fact.

It would appear that ongoing and increasing resistance to shale-gas mining in the US seems to have no bearing on Prof Keeton’s support for shale gas.

It is simple to cast the call for exploration in a reasonable light, but if one considers that there is nothing to suggest that “successful” exploration would not routinely be converted into a full production licence, at the behest of the African National Congress, I believe we have established a very strong case for exploration licences to be denied at this time.

Jonathan Deal

CEO, Treasure Karoo Action Group