Cape Town - The battle over the exploration of shale gas in the Karoo is far from over, say lobby groups gearing for a fight that could reach the Constitutional Court.
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu will brief the media at Parliament on Tuesday on the technical task team’s report the cabinet approved last week when it lifted a moratorium on exploration after 14 months.
The decision has outraged environmentalists and lobby groups opposed to the controversial system of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, on the grounds of the dangers the process poses in the water-scarce region.
Shabangu’s office said she would detail the “government’s stance and way forward on the matter” before a sitting of the National Assembly ton Tuesday afternoon, where the issue will be discussed.
“We’re definitely going to court. We have been preparing for this for the past 18 months. There are various laws and statutes that we believe have been violated,” said Jonathan Deal of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group. “This is just the beginning of the fight.”
The group was formed to oppose fracking in the Karoo. Deal said, and in terms of the moratorium, it didn’t have much of a legal standing.
“But we do have a legal case in terms of actual exploration. It won’t be long before this happens,” said Deal.
Three companies – the multinational Shell, the Australian-based Bundu and US-based Falcon – have applied for permission to explore for shale gas.
Deal called the cabinet’s decision “hastily and ill-informed”, and said they were disappointed, but not shocked by the announcement.
On Friday, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane said the cabinet had approved the report drawn up by the task team established to explore the viability of shale gas exploration, and had decided to lift the moratorium on exploration.
Chabane said it was the process, and not individual applications, that had been suspended by the moratorium.
But the issue is not cut and dried, as the Department of Science and Technology is also awaiting details before it can comment on whether or not the decision will affect its Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope in the Karoo.
Chabane said there would be a buffer zone between the shale gas exploration activities and the proposed R15 billionn SKA radio telescope with its 3 000 dishes.
Lunga Ngqengelele, the Department of Science and Technology spokesman, said they would first study the technical team’s report to see whether provisions in the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act had been broken before taking a position.
The legislation provides for the “preservation and protection of areas within the Republic that are uniquely suited for optical and radio astronomy”, and aims “to provide for intergovernmental co-operation and public consultation on matters concerning nationally significant astronomy advantage areas”.
“There is legislation that protects astronomical sites. It’s what the minister has been saying all along,” said Ngqengelele.
Environmental bodies said fracking has the potential to “carpet bomb” rural areas.
But energy expert Professor Philip Lloyd welcomed the news as “very positive” and long “overdue”.
He said he was never certain why the moratorium was imposed in the first place. “We could not have done much damage if we explored first”, he said.
“If we do find something, then there will be huge benefits for South Africa as a whole”.
Saliem Fakier, who heads the World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet Unit, said the government hadn’t provided the basis for its decision.
“And they didn’t put the decision out for public scrutiny. They’ve been very dismissive. It’s very bad handling of public relations,” said Fakier.
He said given the current “crisis” in mining, the government needed to be more sensitive and more responsible in how it made such decisions.
Chabane indicated the report would be made public, but that this would be up to Shabangu.
Political parties’ reaction was mixed, with the Freedom Front Plus condemning the lifting of the moratorium.
DA spokesman on mineral resources, James Lorimer, said his party wanted the government to proceed “cautiously on this issue”.
“The potential benefits in terms of job creation, cheaper energy and increased government revenue needs to be constantly weighed against the potential threats to our agricultural sector, water resources and environmental integrity of the Karoo and other potentially affected areas,” Lorimer said. - Cape Times