The government will stop the exploration of shale gas in South Africa's Karoo region if it is found that hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" poses any risk to the water table or to the Square Kilometre Array project, says Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu.
Presenting the findings of the government's investigation of the environmental and social effects of hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo Basin, Shabangu said in Pretoria on Tuesday that the report laid down conditions that could lead to the exploration process being halted.
"We are a water-scarce country," Shabangu said. "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 [the SKA] and they cannot mitigate it, we may need to stop the process."
Moratorium on fracking exploration lifted
The Cabinet last week approved the lifting of a moratorium imposed in February last year, allowing licences for the exploration of shale gas in the country to be issued under certain circumstances.
The US Energy Information Administration has estimated that South Africa's Karoo Basin contains a technically recoverable resource of 485-trillion cubic feet of gas.
Under the Cabinet decision, the actual fracking 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 that could be affected by shale gas exploration.
Monitoring committee to be set up
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.
The monitoring committee would ensure that regulations were followed and that appropriate regulations, controls and co-ordination systems were established between the next six and 12 months.
In addition to setting up a monitoring committee, the task team recommended that SKA South Africa work closely with the department to ensure that the multi-billion rand telescope project was in no way compromised.
In addition, the task team recommended that ongoing research be carried out in the environmental impact of shale gas in order to develop new and better methods for hydraulic fracturing.
Shabangu 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 challenge
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 was prepared to defend its decision to allow exploration of shale gas in the courts.
She said five companies had expressed an interest in exploring for shale gas in South Africa and would apply for prospecting licences as soon as the application process was released.
Task team report
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, the technical specifications of fracking, the regulatory framework, the potential impact on the SKA, and the economic implications of a ban.
The task team was 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 to 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 soon be made available on the Department of Mineral Resources website www.dmr.gov.za.