An rig prepares to drill.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has called for a moratorium on the granting of rights to explore for shale gas in the Karoo.

On Thursday, DA shadow environmental minister Gareth Morgan said he would be writing to Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu not to approve any rights currently and saying there was no need to rush the process.

Shale-gas exploration involves a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water and sand are pumped into a well in order to get the gas that is contained in soft rock to flow freely. While the prospect of exploiting such a resource may go someway in securing the country's energy supplies, it can lead to pollution of the underground water system and may affect land use for years.

The Petroleum Agency of SA is considering seven applications to explore parts of the ecologically sensitive Karoo.

After the agency's presentation in Parliament on Wednesday, MPs from the DA and African National Congress (ANC) said they sensed that the first approval, that of US-based company Falcon Oil & Gas, was imminent.

Among the exploration requests are those by international petroleum groups Shell and Bundu.

Morgan contends that another reason for the moratorium is that the Petroleum Agency is too small and underfunded.

“This small agency, with a miniscule staff and possessing a budget which, by its own admission, will not see it adequately through the next two years, is not in a position to make a considered decision on applications that to date cover a landmass of SA in excess of 200,000 square kilometres,” he said.

Morgan said that, by Molewa's own admission, in a reply to a DA parliamentary question last year, there was no policy on fracking in SA.

He said the Mineral and Petroleum Resource Development Act provides in general terms for an applicant to demonstrate its technical ability to conduct exploration in line with best industry practice.

Morgan claimed that the Petroleum Agency was tasked with ensuring that operators had the required means, skills and understanding of any exploration activity.

“These provisions set off a number of alarm bells. The agency has no experience of regulating fracking, nor does it have the environmental compliance officers who are required to monitor the process if deployed,” he said.

Morgan also contended that, in approving any application, the Petroleum Agency became the de facto land-use arbiter of these extensive areas, with implications for the democratically approved integrated development plans of affected municipalities.

“In effect, the spatial planning framework for SA yet to be released by the National Planning Commission (under the directorship of National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel) is rendered useless,” he said. - I-Net Bridge