Donwald Pressly

The diminution of aquifers and contamination of water resources in the Karoo by potential hydraulic fracturing are the government’s “major concerns” and the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs is considering changes to the National Water Act to ensure adequate control over the process of extracting shale gas.

Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said last week, in reply to a question from DA MP Gareth Morgan, that the department had studied “various reports” as part of the Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa) working group set up by the Department of Mineral Resources.

“These reports include the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, the (US) subcommittee on shale and hydraulic fracturing report to the secretary of the energy advisory board, and the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports, to mention a few,” she told Morgan.

Her written reply came in the wake of an interim report by the EPA last week showing there could be a link between shale gas extraction in Pavillion, Wyoming, and the contamination of ground water.

Asked what international reports on fracking had been studied by her department, she said technical papers and reports “have also been consulted” from Canada, Europe and Australia – in addition to the US – where hydraulic fracturing for shale gas development was taking place.

On who in her department was responsible for the study on the impact of fracking – as hydraulic fracturing is dubbed – she said there were “several experts in the department with a lot of experience in water resources protection and management”. However, “the entry point” was Helgard Muller, the acting director-general of policy and regulation.

Asked why the diminution of aquifers and contamination of water had been identified as concerns by her department, she said they had been identified as major risks “that affect the mandate of the (water and environmental affairs) department”.

Asked by Morgan how the department could distinguish between technical “and sensationalist reports”, Molewa said the US Geological Survey, the EIA and the EPA were some of the international networks that the department was using through the Pasa working group “because of the professional and unbiased track record of these entities”.

Pressed on whether her department would be developing a policy on fracking – which is the extraction of shale gas using water, sand and chemicals deep below the earth’s surface – Molewa said the department had the National Water Act as “its tool”, but there was also a process currently being explored to check if it was enough to cover hydraulic fracturing “and if not, what needs to be done to ensure adequate control”.

Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu has to decide by February whether to extend a moratorium on shale gas exploration in the Karoo.

She has placed two moratoriums of six months on the process while her department – through the Pasa working group – carries out an investigation into the merits and impact of hydraulic fracturing.

Morgan said Molewa’s reply was “considered”. It was pleasing that the minister had focused on possible regulatory and legislative shortfalls.

“It stands in contrast to the mineral resources minister who won’t even tell us what the terms of reference of the working group are.”

Shabangu would also not allow a peer review of the report or release it for public consumption, he said.