Environment & Science Writer
THE GOVERNMENT task team appointed to investigate the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for shale gas in the Karoo appears not to include any environmental experts or officials from the departments of water and environmental affairs.
This is apparent from remarks by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu at a media briefing this week, ahead of her budget speech on Wednesday.
The omission has disappointed environmentalists, who say the big concern about fracking is precisely its environmental impact.
And they are also concerned that the task team’s investigation is being hurried because, despite assurances that a cabinet-approved moratorium on fracking is in place, this has not been officially gazetted and is therefore not technically legal.
Shabangu said the task team would report back to the cabinet by the end of July.
In terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, the minister must decide on an application for an exploration permit within 120 days of the applicant submitting an environmental management plan, if all requirements are met. In Shell’s case – and assuming the department believes it has complied – this will be by mid-August.
The opposition DA, which has posed as yet unanswered parliamentary questions about the task team, says if water and environmental affairs officials are excluded, then the team is “fatally flawed”.
“In particular, the Environmental Affairs Department is a player in gas exploration proposals as the actual EIAs (environmental impact assessments) for the drill sites are a competency of this department, despite the environmental management plan being a competency of the Mineral Resources Department,” said DA environment spokesman Gareth Morgan.
“Further, the availability of water and the potential for water pollution are arguably the most important considerations when deciding on gas exploration proposals, so the Water Affairs Department has an obvious role to play.”
In the prepared copy of her budget speech, Shabangu said she had appointed a task team “of senior government officials”, led by her department, to conduct further research on “these crucial issues” and to help formulate a policy.
Earlier, in answer to a question at the briefing about the task team, she said it comprised officials from her department, the Petroleum Agency of SA which is assessing Shell’s application, and from the departments of science and technology and of trade and industry. She raised eyebrows by not mentioning the departments of water and environmental affairs.
When the Cape Argus later asked department spokesman Bheki Kumalo for details of the task team, he would say only that it had met for the first time last week. He declined to name its members. He also said he expected the minister would announce its composition later.
Melissa Fourie, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights, said the apparent absence of environmental experts from the task team was “of great concern”.
l Additional reporting by Donwald Pressly.