Donwald Pressly

In another signal that South African authorities are warming to the need to exploit local reserves of shale gas, the National Planning Commission said yesterday that it saw natural gas providing “a rising share” of the energy mix because it was likely to be cheaper than exploring nuclear power options.

It warned, however, that steps had to be taken to ensure that environmental safeguards were firmly put in place.

The commission, which is an advisory body to the South African government, also believes that South Africa’s abundance of coal sources means that this form of energy cannot be ignored in the future, but argues that it should be exploited as efficiently and cleanly as possible.

Addressing a briefing of MPs on the National Development Plan piloted by Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, the head of his office, Kuben Naidoo, said that while no target had been set for gas supply, the ministry was “mindful of the environmental and safety risks associated with hydraulic fracturing”.

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial process to extract gas from beneath the earth.

A number of companies want to explore for shale gas in the greater Karoo area of the Western Cape and Northern Cape, including Shell, Bundu Oil & Gas and Falcon Oil & Gas.

Earlier this week Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu said an inter-ministerial task team probing the potential exploitation of shale gas, which is dubbed fracking mainly by its opponents, would be presented to the cabinet shortly.

Shabangu was answering questions outside a meeting of the National Assembly’s mineral resources committee.

She said that once the report went to the cabinet the committee would debate the matter further. She confirmed that the issue of the lifting of the moratorium on exploration for shale gas would be contained in the report to the cabinet. It is understood that this is an indication that the moratorium, which was imposed early last year and extended again in August for six months to the end of February, effectively remains in place until it is lifted.

MPs asked Naidoo what was inhibiting South Africa from exploiting solar energy, particularly when one realised that a country like Germany was producing high volumes of it in a cold climate, but sunny South Africa was far behind in deploying solar technology.

Naidoo noted that it was envisaged by the integrated resource plan that South Africa needed to increase its power generation capacity by 40 000 megawatts, about double the current levels, within 20 years. Some 20 000MW of this “must come from renewables”, which included a little hydroelectric power, gas and about 9 600MW of power from nuclear energy.

“We think we should explore our own gas resources. We think gas might be cheaper than nuclear (power).”

He said recent natural gas finds off Mozambique had been “very significant… so we are taking a regional approach to energy, especially lower carbon dioxide-emitting energy (sources).” – Additional reporting by Shanti Aboobaker