Well over a year since Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu first placed a moratorium on exploration to assess the potential for hydraulic fracturing for gas in the Karoo, there is still a deafening silence on the matter from the government.
There is no doubt that the process of fracking, as it is colloquially known, is controversial, with concerns about the environmental impact of the chemicals used with vast quantities of water to blast at shale rock to release the gas deep underground. But the manner in which the government – in particular the Mineral Resources Department – has dealt with it has left everyone in the industry hanging.
Royal Dutch Shell, in particular, is poised to spend hundreds of millions of rand on exploration, but it is not even sure that the moratorium is still in place. In the absence of the minister saying anything about it, it is assumed the moratorium remains in place, although it was supposed to have expired by the end of February.
The last thing she said about fracking was that the report by a task team would be placed before cabinet imminently. Yesterday cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi said the report had not been placed at this week’s meeting of cabinet, but acknowledged that its appearance was overdue. Questions would be put to the Mineral Resources Department, he pledged.
Of course, the exploration companies themselves believe that the process will be done with the minimum of damage to the environment. It is natural that they would believe so. The Treasure the Karoo Action Group, an anti-fracking lobby group led by writer and environmentalist Jonathan Deale, believes the consequences of fracking will be dire. There is a real possibility of water being contaminated in an environment that is semi-desert, it argues. While Deale suggests tapping into alternative forms of energy, an Econometrix study commissioned by Shell argued fracking could contribute up to R90 billion in government revenue and generate 700 000 permanent jobs over 25 years.