Fracking in Karoo gets a R108m injection

Energy generation in the Karoo before fracking. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Energy generation in the Karoo before fracking. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

The R108-million investment in shale gas research, announced in Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s budget speech, was “positive” and showed “government is taking time to investigate”, World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Saliem Fakir said.

Shale gas has been touted as a way to curb climate change and reduce the world’s reliance on coal, but has been met with opposition from civil and environmental lobby groups querying whether it is cleaner than coal, among other concerns.

To liberate natural gas –  mainly comprising methane – from shale rock, the rock must be hydraulically fractured or “fracked”. This involves chemicals pumped into rock fissures at pressure, and then recovered for processing, with some of this liquid remaining in the ground.

South Africa has about 119-trillion cubic metres in technically recoverable, but not proven, reserves of natural gas in the Karoo basin. The government is eager to exploit this resource; exploration licences could be awarded from July this year. The investment “signals ... [government is] beginning to be more cautious than they were before”, Fakir said.

Science on the rise
Although Nene said “innovation and technology change are at the heart of [the country’s economic development] strategy”,  science and technology got few mentions in his budget speech.

The department of science and technology – which co-ordinates research in South Africa and oversees the National Research Foundation, South Africa’s main disburser of postgraduate funding – saw its budget increase from R6.48-billion in 2014-2015 to R7.48-billion in 2015-2016, R7.56-billion in 2016-2017 and R7.61-billion in 2017-2018. The department’s budget has increased steadily since its formation in 2002.

The department’s flagship, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, was allocated R2.1-billion over three years, continuing with the support it has received. The SKA, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope, will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and Africa.

Ocean economy project Operation Phakisa was allocated R296-million over three years. President Jacob Zuma said last July that the project “focuses on unlocking the economic potential of South Africa’s oceans, estimated to have potential to contribute up to R177-billion to [South Africa’s GDP] by 2033, compared to R54-billion in 2010”.

Nene also announced the creation of a maths, science and technology grant, which will consolidate the Dinaledi school grant with the technical secondary school recapitalisation grant. South Africa has poor maths and science school results and this translates into a shortage of skilled people in the economy.

The new grant merged the funding of the previous grants, with R1.1-billion allocated over the 2015 medium-term expenditure period. “By combining these overlapping programmes, they can be better administered and expanded to reach more schools,” he said.

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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