/ 8 February 2022

Government’s gas plan is ‘reckless and unnecessary’, say environment groups

In the face of severe load-shedding, the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) has started approving gas projects to help alleviate the pressure on the economy. (Luca Sola/AFP)

Reckless and unnecessary. That’s how civil society organisations have described the department of mineral resources and energy’s new plan charting South Africa’s gas future.

On 14 December, the department published its gas master plan basecase report, which establishes baseline information for the natural gas sector and outlines the roadmap towards the master plan. Public comments were due at the end of January, but last week the department announced an extension until 15 February.

Gas accounts for 2.6% of the national energy mix — the department aims to raise this to 15.7% by 2030 in line with its latest integrated resource plan. “South Africa’s natural gas market is small, but with all its inherent benefits, it has the potential to completely change the economy by stimulating economic growth and development, stability and job creation,” the report reads. 

The report states how the “meaningful addition” of natural gas to the energy mix will “rejuvenate an overburdened, outdated energy infrastructure” and reduce cyclical energy shortfalls. “Perhaps, even more importantly, it will stimulate the economy by allowing business and industry to lower their energy and operational spend while also creating significant numbers of new jobs and skills development opportunities.”

‘Significant harmful emissions’ 

In the report, gas is touted as clean and climate- and environment-friendly. “When burned, natural gas is one of the cleanest and most powerful forms of energy available. Considering that only 2.6% of South Africa’s primary energy needs are currently sourced from natural gas and the government’s international climate change and carbon-reduction commitment, exploitation of natural gas will play an integral part of South Africa’s future energy mix diversification.”

But Gabrielle Knott, specialist gas attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), told the Mail & Guardian that the report is “misguided in alleging that gas is a cleaner fuel source” that will reduce pollution. “The extracting, transporting and burning of gas gives rise to significant harmful emissions and impacts,” she said.

Knott emphasised that the International Energy Agency, in its 2021 Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, confirmed that to avoid irreversible, catastrophic climate change, no new oil or gas fields should be developed as at 2021, or “no new production of natural gas reserves”.

‘Reckless, unnecessary’

In comments submitted for Life After Coal, a joint campaign by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, groundWork and the CER, Knott argued the basecase report has failed to consider the implications of the master plan in the context of the climate emergency. 

It is the government’s constitutional imperative to protect the people of South Africa against the impacts of climate change, including committing to the transition away from fossil fuels, she wrote. 

“The department, and the government more broadly, should not be embarking on a process of gas infrastructure development at all and certainly not of the scope and scale envisaged by the report. Such a plan is not only reckless and unnecessary, but it also flies in the face of the rights enshrined in the Constitution, and is contrary to the government’s own policies and plans.”

South Africa vulnerable to climate change

Comments submitted by Just Share, a non-profit shareholder activism organisation, described how Southern Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with warming in the interior occurring at about twice the global average rate. 

“There have already been substantial changes in the number of extreme temperature events in Southern Africa, and if climate mitigation efforts [to reduce emissions] are low or do not succeed, experts report that further drastic increases in events like heatwaves, high fire-danger days and oppressive temperatures impacting on human comfort and health can be expected,” Just Share wrote. 

In all climate change scenarios, there will be enormous negative physical, socioeconomic and ecological effects for the country. “To claim that gas will assist South Africa in reaching its climate ambitions is not supported by the evidence,” Just Share said, describing how the basecase report relies largely on information provided by the gas industry to support its claims about the future role of gas.

Global shift away from fossil fuels

The basecase report states that global decarbonisation strategies and pathways conclude that economy-wide fossil fuel consumption must drastically decline over the next several decades. “The low-carbon energy transition provides a unique opportunity for gas in the short- and medium-term to support the transition to a decarbonised economy.”

Knott warned, however, that gas projects risk becoming stranded assets as they are outcompeted by cleaner, more affordable alternatives. “This is particularly relevant in light of the global shift away from fossil fuels, including gas; increased domestic and international taxes on fossil fuels; increased litigation and liability of governments in failing to reduce greenhouse gases; and the high costs associated with being locked into outdated fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when South Africa needs to be increasingly frugal with its limited resources.” 

Any climate finance to South Africa may be prejudiced and/or refused on the basis of the government’s continued and long-term commitment to fossil fuel exploitation, she wrote.

In its submission, Oceans Not Oil said: “Assessing the systemic risks of the gas master plan in relation to the climate crisis it is clear that it will increase climate harms, economic costs, injustice and will undermine the immediate realisation of viable alternatives …. To get caught in the loop of using what gas reserves we have simply locks another fossil fuel into our emissions trajectory. Like asbestos, fossil gas is a resource that climate science insists must stay underground.” 

Compared with coal, burning gas emits half as much carbon dioxide. “However, the extraction, processing and transport of gas also emits greenhouse gases, including large amounts of methane from leaks and intentional releases at wells, pipelines, and storage and processing facilities.” (Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Methane second biggest driver of climate change

Knott noted there is an “agenda to push gas” as a bridging fuel to clean energy, but expert analyses have shown this to be “false and outdated”, particularly in light of available and cleaner flexible energy alternatives and increased evidence of the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with gas exploitation. 

Non-conventional gas technologies — liquefied natural gas (LNG), shale gas, coal bed methane and underground coal gasification — are particularly dirty and prone to leaking, she said. 

Compared with coal, burning gas emits half as much carbon dioxide. “However, the extraction, processing and transport of gas also emits greenhouse gases, including large amounts of methane from leaks and intentional releases at wells, pipelines, and storage and processing facilities.”

Methane, the principal component of gas, does not persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but its effect on the climate is more than 80 times stronger in the short-term (20-year) timeframe and 28 times stronger over the long-term (100-year) timeframe. “It is the second-biggest driver of climate change,” she wrote.

Gas-to-power programme

According to the basecase report, the challenge in developing the gas sector is to bring gas demand and supply on stream at the same time, spread geographically to stimulate broader localised demand through the country.  “One way of breaking this impasse is to create significant ‘anchor’ gas demand through the development of a gas-to-power programme”, which is in pursuit of adding generating capacity, lowering carbon emissions, enhancing energy security and supporting industrial development.

Just Share said expert evidence demonstrates that, for the next decade at least, new gas capacity is not needed to meet demand and prevent blackouts. “The optimal pathway is for South Africa to build renewable energy and hold off on any decision to develop new gas infrastructure for 10 to 15 years. This least-cost scenario also avoids locking South Africa into long-term LNG fuel purchase commitments.”

Failure to deliver

The basecase report, Just Share said, provides no substantiation for its assertions that the economy will benefit from developing gas resources. “In circumstances where renewable energy is now the most cost-effective, easily deployable source of energy, with the potential to transform energy access, energy security and industrial activity, it is inexplicable that the government would choose to follow a path which will almost certainly entrench and exacerbate existing inequality and energy challenges,” it wrote.

In its submission, Natural Justice noted that the master plan has yet to develop a scale of scenarios for compensating families and local communities likely to be affected by pipeline development and infrastructure. “Moreover, pipelines are prone to methane leaks and explosions, necessitating increased surveillance, repairs, monitoring, maintenance and risk mitigation.”  

Public participation is a cardinal principle of democracy, yet this right is “increasingly being disregarded by oil and gas companies and our government”, Natural Justice wrote.