Opposition to fracking peters out

Gas flaring inevitably accompanies fracking.

Gas flaring inevitably accompanies fracking.

The anti-fracking lobby in South Africa is dead. The vociferous opposition to a controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing – used to free and capture natural gas stored in shale rock formations – has faded into sporadic yelps.

It has been drowned out by the government's push to find out whether the country's estimated 390-trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves actually exist. A generous reading of the government's intentions shows a state that is presiding over flagging economic growth and unemployment figures that loiter around 25%, at a minimum. Others say it is self-enrichment: the draft amendments to the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 will see the state owning more than 20% of mining projects.

But after legal challenges and public outcries, natural gas exploration is going ahead. The lobby did manage to delay the go-ahead for several years: In 2011, there was a moratorium on shale exploration, which lasted a year, and in 2013 the department of mineral resources published technical specifications for natural gas extraction. Last week, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu reiterated the government's commitment to shale-gas exploration.

But some lobbyists said: "But there is still a chance – they shouldn't be doing it. We will stop it."

And that's all it is: a chance – and an increasingly unlikely one. So what we need is a mitigation strategy.

Pros and cons
Natural gas could be a very good thing for South Africa – an unexpected revenue stream that could reduce our reliance on filthy coal, increase our energy supply and create a new industry. But it could also be an unmitigated disaster, destroying one of the country's most biologically diverse regions. And the more time we spend shouting at thunder and stomping our feet because we don't want fracking, the more likely this will be the ultimate outcome.

A mining specialist said earlier this year: "Energy generation can be clean but that costs money and depends on the regulations."

Energy companies will not regulate themselves. They are concerned about their bottom lines and will only pay attention to environmental concerns when it costs them money.

Professor Hilary Inyang, an energy expert and part of the International Council for Science, said last year: "From my experience, the companies are there to make money, not [to] be responsible for environmental stewardship. Their behaviour is dependent on regulations and enforcement of them. They cannot be trusted to do things in an environmentally compatible way. The regulatee cannot be the regulator."

However, the question of who is in charge of compliance appears to be muddled. The department of mineral resources referred the Mail & Guardian to the department of environmental affairs, whose Environmental Management Inspectorate, known as the Green Scorpions and with a staff of 330, is in charge of compliance. Mining is only one of many areas they oversee.

Conflicting responsibilities
The environmental affairs department, in turn, said it worked with the mineral resources department on environmental compliance. But even if the Green Scorpions were better staffed, they cannot enforce legislation – they hand cases over to the National Prosecuting Authority.

But, if the current amendments to the Act go through, the mineral resources minister would be responsible for overseeing environmental matters that relate to prospecting, mining, exploration and production.

This would be a catastrophe – not only with respect to fracking but for all mining. Environmental compliance cannot be the responsibility of the department of mineral resources alone. The department is tasked with overseeing mining: its mandate is to "promote and regulate the minerals and mining sector for transformation, growth, development and ensure that all South Africans derive sustainable benefits from the country's mineral wealth". It does not mention the environment.

Instead of adding to the sound and fury surrounding fracking, we need to look at the greater problem, such as coal mining in Mpumalanga, discarded uranium in gold mining tailings and derelict mines that are allegedly no one's responsibility.

We cannot see the wood for the trees. Hydraulic fracking will be as dirty and as catastrophic as it is allowed to be. But, considering the lack of environmental legislation enforcement in many mining activities, and the possibility that this responsibility will ultimately be vested in the department of mineral resources, it could be the disaster many fear – unless we pick our battles and push for the regulation and enforcement that is needed.

Sarah Wild is the Mail & Guardian's science editor.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild


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