The minister of mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, has announced that his department will not be extracting gas by way of fracking, but it will use “other methodologies” after a court ruled in favour of anti-fracking groups.
“The recent judgment prohibiting us from fracking is interpreted wrongly as saying there must [be] nothing happening — [but] we can access that gas if we use methodologies other than fracking, and that is what we are going to be focusing on,” Mantashe said.
The minister did not, however, mention what other techniques may be used.
His remarks were made at the tabling of the department’s 2019-2020 budget vote in Parliament on Wednesday. The speech was delivered after the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein ruled that the 2015 promulgation of petroleum exploration and production regulations, under the Mineral Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), aimed at regulating fracking in South Africa, be set aside.
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process that involves using a highly pressurised mixture of water and chemicals to drill into shale beds to release the gas trapped inside the rocks.
Anti-fracking groups AfriForum and the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) have been in litigation for years, trying to prevent the fracking of the Karoo.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Jonathan Deal, chief executive of TKAG — which was founded in 2011 — said the recent judgment is a “vindication of the efforts they made prior to 2015 to [set aside] these regulations”.
AfriForum and TKAG took the matter to the appeal court after the Pretoria high court originally ruled in favour of the state, which had opposed their application.
“We have been met with arrogance from the department of minerals, where they do just what they want to, and [they’ve] ignored the scientific data we have put in front of them, which is indicative of the attitude of the administration generally in this country,” Deal said.
The department, he said, had now been “rewarded with a judgment that goes against them”, calling it a “win for the environment”.
The department should “start from the beginning and craft a proper set of regulations, with proper public consultation, and do their job correctly”, said Deal.
Even if the department goes back to the drawing board, TKAG remains opposed to fracking. “We do not see the necessity and the motivation for a technology like fracking in this country, when it has become [banned] in countries such as the Netherlands.”
Fracking is controversial because of the adverse environmental effects it can have on the environment, particularly the potential contamination of both surface and groundwater.
The practice has been banned in Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany and Bulgaria, and in Vermont, Maryland and New York states in the United States; several other states are in battles over its legality.
At present, no one is fracking in the Karoo.
“At the moment there is no authorisation for exploration — never mind physical mining — so if it comes to my attention anywhere that someone is conducting exploration without proper authorisation in writing, I will be the first one to go to the police,” said Deal.
Between 2008 and 2010 oil companies Shell, Bundu Gas and Oil Exploration, and Falcon Oil & Gas applied for rights to explore for shale gas in the Karoo, but a public outcry led to a moratorium on fracking.
Although the moratorium was ultimately lifted, Shell has reportedly scaled down its Karoo plans because of low oil prices and policy uncertainty concerning proposed amendments to the MPRDA.
AfriForum’s head of local government affairs, Morné Mostert, said in light of the recent judgment: “It’s very important for government to take into cognisance that fracking can have severe consequences on the environment. Given that South Africa is a water-scarce country, it could affect our clean water supply.
“The department cannot implement something as destructive as fracking without putting the necessary mechanisms in place,” said Mostert.
In response to written questions, the department said it had noted the judgment, and to give effect to it, the departments of mineral resources and energy, environment, forestry and fisheries as well as water and sanitation will continue to develop and promulgate the regulations in line with the applicable laws.
All relevant stakeholders will be kept informed throughout the process, said department spokesperson Ayanda Shezi.
To add to the complexity, government has taken a decision to draw up separate legislation for the petroleum and gas sectors, separating it from the MPRDA regime. “A draft Upstream Petroleum (Oil and Gas) Bill is in the process of being developed,” Shezi said. “This Bill will provide certainty to the upstream petroleum industry and stimulate growth and development in this sector.”
Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian