Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: GCIS
Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: GCIS

Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s announcement last week that the government has decided to proceed with shale gas extraction in the Karoo has been slammed by industry experts on the basis of its negative consequences for the environment and the region’s water supply.

Zwane revealed government’s decision in a speech to a Northern Cape community of Richmond on Thursday. Five applications for fracking licences have been submitted so far by Shell (3), Falcon Oil and Gas and Bundu Gas and Oil Exploration.

The views of industry analysts support the findings of a report released in November 2016 by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research which concluded that there was not enough water in the Karoo to extract shale gas by means of fracking and that this would also pose a risk of water pollution. The report was commissioned in 2012 by the Department of Mineral Resources to investigate the feasibility of shale gas development in the Karoo.

Frost & Sullivan industry analyst for energy and the environment Tilden Hellyer said the minister’s surprising announcement was made with little comment from the Department of Energy or from former energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. He said the two main issues to consider were the potential repercussions to the environment and the need for shale gas to meet the country’s energy needs.

"The truth is that we simply have no confirmation that shale gas can be extracted in South Africa in a manner that will not harm the environment of the Karoo. This uncertainty makes it difficult to proceed and, for decision-makers, ultimately becomes a matter of conscience," Hellyer said.

"There simply is not enough water in the Karoo for the purpose of fracking as well as agriculture and human consumption. At a time of drought, the notion of setting up a fracking industry is absurd for the Cape provinces. It is a well-known fact that vast amounts of water are needed during the fracking process to extract the deeply embedded natural gas. The decision to approve fracking comes at a time when the Western Cape is dealing with water restrictions," Hellyer said.

"The concern is that often potable water used in fracking is hardly recyclable due to the hundreds of chemical compounds used in the process. The 19-million litres of water used on average in operations are a single pass component and might not be used again in agriculture, for industrial applications or human consumption. Instead, the water is merely discarded."

Wim Jonker Klunne, who is on the advisory board for Energy Revolution Africa, which will form part of the African Utility Week conference in May, noted that while gas might be a viable option for South Africa’s energy mix, "I see too many issues around shale gas from the Karoo to justify its exploration. The impact on local livelihoods and available water will not justify the exploration of shale gas, particularly as many other (renewable) options are available."

He said that while gas-based generation of electricity could be used to balance supply and demand in a flexible and better way than coal and nuclear this should not be at the cost of a fragile environment such as the Karoo. "Importing gas from, for example, Mozambique might be a much better option." he said.

In his speech Zwane gave the assurance that the government was committed to developing shale gas "in a manner that is considerate of the country’s water resources and environmental sustainability". He said the decision to proceed with the development of shale gas in the Karoo was based on the balance of available scientific evidence.

"Government has taken comprehensive measures to alleviate the risk associated with the development of shale gas. The publication of regulations for petroleum exploration and production as well as the Karoo Deep Drilling study being undertaken by the Council for Geoscience, constitute some of these measures," Zwane said.

"The finalisation of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act amendments will also help to expedite the development of shale gas. He estimated the recoverable resource of shale gas at up to 50-trillion cubic feet in the Karoo basin especially in the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape provinces.

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