Confusion over fracking move

Sue Blaine

THE proposed two-year extension of the moratorium on fracking seems to be only lip service. In a surprise move, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu has asked the oil and gas industry for comment on a proposed two-year extension of the moratorium on new applications for onshore and offshore exploration rights‚ and on the controversial hydraulic fracturing (fracking) gas-extraction technique.

It is unclear why Shabangu has made this move‚ and her department refuses to explain why the extension was needed. Shabangu said at this month's Mining Indaba in Cape Town the government would be moving ahead "decisively" on shale gas exploration in the Karoo.

This statement and the proposed extension had lawyers scratching their heads‚ as they contradict each other.

The department‚ however‚ said oil and gas exploration and production in South Africa was in its infancy‚ and there was an "urgent need" to let those granted exploration licences before the moratorium was declared in February 2011 continue their exploration work. This is limited to desk-top studies and reconnaissance‚ while industry players have said the viability of the Karoo resource would be known only after test drills‚ employing the fracking technique‚ were executed.

The largest potential reserves in South Africa are in the Karoo's shale beds.

If proven‚ extraction would require fracking.

ENSAfrica oil and gas expert Luke Havemann said if the extension would give Shabangu time to finalise the fracking regulations and align legislation‚ it was welcomed.

Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) chief executive Jonathan Deal said the three big firms that applied for shale gas exploration rights before February 2011 – Shell, Chevron and Challenger – were unaffected by Shabangu's "seemingly uncoordinated announcements", referring to her proposed two-year extension of the moratorium on new applications.

"It has just bought more time for the big three companies involved. It will take them two years to get ready anyway, since there is a lot of preparatory work involved before they can start fracking," Deal said.

In the meantime, Deal praised the departments of International Relations and Cooperation, Water Affairs and Environmental Affairs for a shale gas workshop held in Pretoria this week.

He said the engagement was the most positive development that TKAG had experienced in more than three years of "frustrating dialogue" around fracking in SA.

"Finally, we have a commitment from engaged government agencies to develop a strategic environmental assessment around the issue of shale gas mining.

"This is what we have been asking for since May 2011.

"We can only hope that by some process of osmosis, the Mineral Resources Department will follow this example and engage appropriately with all of the stakeholders in this decision." – Additional reporting by Cindy Preller