State gears up to take advantage of fracking

Donwald Pressly

The state is gearing up to play a significant role in the extraction of shale gas in the Karoo, mirroring the role state-owned companies play in other mining sectors, including coal and diamonds.

Announcing some of the details of the report on hydraulic fracturing by the task team, of which a working group was led by the Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa), Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu noted yesterday that the government was playing a role in the extraction of coal in Mpumalanga through a state-owned company.

In a similar way it was likely that a state-owned company would be involved in the shale gas business in the Karoo, Shabangu said at a media briefing in Parliament.

The government is also involved to a limited extent in diamond mining through Alexkor, which has largely loss-making operations at Alexander Bay in the Northern Cape.

Although Shabangu did not spell it out, it is likely that gas-to-oil parastatal PetroSA will play a role if and when the new industry gets under way.

Shabangu did not release the full report, which recommended the lifting of an 18-month moratorium on shale gas exploration and the reopening of the licensing process. Her spokesman, Zingaphi Jakuja, said this was because the report had to be “professionally edited”. It is now expected to be released on the department’s website on Friday.

Pressed by Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) national co-ordinator Jonathan Deal on why the government had not allowed public participation in the drawing up of the task team report, the minister said the government had not been certain of its position regarding a new form of mining and it needed to finalise its stances before it went through a public participation process.

That process would now begin in earnest, she said.

Responding to questions on whether the state would defend threatened legal action in the courts, the minister said that the state had taken a stance – in favour of fracking – and it now had “an obligation” to defend its position in court.

TKAG has already announced that it would appeal to the department against the decision to give fracking the green light, but expected that it would have to go to the high court and ultimately the Constitutional Court.

The working group visited Pennsylvania and Texas in the US to study shale gas exploitation. Pasa had concluded that, owing to the limited data available, it was impossible to quantify the Karoo resource accurately “other than to say that it is potentially very large”.

The group recommended that “normal exploration”, such as drilling to determine the extent of the gas seam, be allowed, but this would exclude “the actual” hydraulic fracturing, dubbed fracking, at this point. It recommended that a monitoring committee be established. Appropriate regulations would take up to a year.

Meanwhile, the Karoo Shale Gas Community Forum’s co-ordinator, Chris Nissen, which represents farmworkers and urban dwellers in the Karoo who back shale gas extraction, said it had opted to work through legal aid clinics.

“We want to take the TKAG and Jonathan Deal to the Human Rights Commission. We believe he is undermining people’s chances of being lifted out of poverty,” he said.