Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu addresses the Press Club in Cape Town. Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams.

The government has put on hold hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo for another six months but pressure is building on the mineral resources department to give it the green light despite major environmental concerns.

Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu was confronted by representatives from both sides of the debate, at a Cape Town Press Club function last week.

The Karoo Fracking Forum headed by Chris Nissen, a former ANC Western Cape leader, said the community – the mass of largely coloured and poor, workers – had been marginalised in the raging debate. He pointed out that it was mainly white landowners who opposed fracking while the workers supported it.

This community which was generally too poor to attend hearings – either held by the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), which bitterly opposes fracking or parliamentary debates – supported the exploitation of a potential vast pool of shale gas – which is in the sights of various multi-national companies including Royal Dutch Shell and Sasol.

The department must take the ultimate decision whether the procedure, which could damage the aquifers in this semi-desert region, will produce significant jobs and will spread new wealth in a poverty-stricken region.

Graaff-Reinet Fracking Forum leader Vuyisa Jantjies said the focus of the debate about the appropriateness – or otherwise – of the procedure had fallen upon the potential damage to the environment and the poisoning of the underground water supply.

It had not focused on those parts of the world where it had been a successful and undamaging procedure, he said.

But the community wanted access to the jobs and potential wealth of Karoo shale gas. He urged the minister to take their views into consideration.

Jonathan Deal, TKAG chairman, challenged the minister to name the members of the multi-departmental task team studying the potential impact of fracking. The minister was unable to name them, noting that she did not know by name the 700 members of her own department and the team were “not my children”. She promised to supply the names.

Deal previously complained that the team did not include the environment and water affairs department.

Responding to a question about mining in an agricultural environment – referring to the Velorensvlei area of the Western Cape where tungsten mining is planned – the minister said it was the stance of her department that agricultural activities should continue with the minimal disruption from mining, but they could take place side-by-side.

This pointed to the pendulum swinging in the direction of favouring fracking in the arid Karoo, although the minister was careful not to show any bias in favour of the procedure last week. She constantly claimed not to be an expert on hydraulic fracturing and needed to be properly informed by experts.

While outside the venue environmental activists carried posts “Fracking fools”, “Shale gas is not clean or green”, and “Don’t frack with our water”, she said there would be a public consultation process – which would be taken to the Karoo.

Meanwhile, the TKAG received a Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa award for creating awareness about the potential dangers of fracking in the Karoo.

DA shadow environment minister Gareth Morgan welcomed the extension of the moratorium on prospecting for shale gas for “a further six months”. He said by doing so Shabangu had acknowledged that there were various aspects surrounding the legislative framework, processes and the method of hydraulic fracturing that needed further investigation.

Importantly, she had committed her department to consulting the public outside of the legislated application processes that applicants were expected to follow.

He believed the initial deadline of having a report ready for the cabinet by the end of July was “always pure folly”. The task team included mineral and energy department as well as the science and technology department which has oversight over the Sutherland telescope project in the Karoo.

Morgan did not rule out the potential of the shale gas energy source. “Shale gas may have a role to play in our energy future, we are ... supportive of further study on fracking.

“If South Africa can satisfy itself that the controls and legislative processes around gas exploration applications are strong and if we know the department ... has the capacity to perform strong compliance and enforcement, and is prepared to protect affected communities, then we are in a position to debate whether the risks are worth the reward,” Morgan said. - Donwald Pressly