Johann Rupert. Pic: Leon Nicholas.

In her book The Plains of Camdeboo, Eve Palmer recalls the search for oil in the late 1960s on her family farm Cranemere in the Karoo, and the prayer it elicited: “Lord, I know we need oil, but let it be somewhere else!”

Her plea has relevance yet, although the search for fossil fuels in the Karoo now centres on extracting gas from shale rock, and the area under surveillance spans five provinces and borders a little mountain kingdom. This vast territory is the Karoo Basin, whose lower layers comprise the shale that gas producers are keen to explore as extraction costs have dropped.

The newfound economic feasibility of “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing, which uses high-pressure injection of chemicals, sand and vast quantities of water to force the free-flow of gas from shale) has cut the price of natural gas relative to oil, triggering substantial interest in the Karoo from gas producers and, in turn, a vehement response from landowners and environmentalists.

In Graaff-Reinet, tobacco tycoon Johann Rupert last week vowed to take on oil multinational Shell in his opposition to shale gas development.

Shell is just one of five would-be gas producers. First off the mark in March 2009 was Denver-based Falcon Oil & Gas with an application to the Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa) for a technical co-operation permit for a 30 000km² block straddling the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Western Cape. It has since applied for an exploration right.

Next was Shell, with its eye on three blocks, each of 30 000km² near Falcon’s territory.

It is unclear why Shell submitted separate applications for the adjacent blocks, but a rejection in one area, say on environmental grounds, might leave the company with options in others, rather than send it back to the drawing board.

Sasol, which recently bought into a shale gas field in Canada, was third in line to submit an application together with US-based

Chesapeake Energy and Norway’s Statoil, for a technical co-operation permit over territory that hugs Lesotho’s borders.

Sasol beat Anglo Coal to parts of this land by a few months (the agency operates on a first-come first-served basis), but Pasa is

due to take a decision on Anglo Coal’s application for a technical co-operation permit over the non-overlapping portions.

Lastly there is Bundu Gas & Oil Exploration, whose application for a right to explore for gas on 4 100km² around Pearston is

due to be finalised in the coming months.

There are many reasons why land users don’t want shale gas producers in their territory, but the most convincing argument has to be water. Not only is the resource scarce, there are fears of crosscontamination of underground aquifers from chemicals used in fracking.

Pasa technical compliance manager Steve Mills acknowledges fracking is a source of concern with instances of aquifer pollution.

“But they are very few and far between…our environmental compliance team is not going to allow uncontrolled and unsupervised use of this technology.”

That’s probably not going to convince opponents of shale gas mining. In the case of Shell, they are concerned that the kind of specialist studies required for an environmental management plan can’t be completed satisfactorily within 120 days of lodging the application for an exploration right (as the law requires). They also allege Shell’s public participation process began with serious communications flaws.

With Rupert’s purse and persona opposing it, Shell may have a tough time ahead.

But what of the area’s less resourced communities? Will they become the “somewhere else” that Palmer referred to? - Ingi Salgado