Land lovers: Demonstrators protest at a fracking test drilling site in Upton, near Chester in Britain. Activists in SA are arguing that fracking companies get a foot in the door when they say they are merely exploring, while the government is not applying consistent criteria. Picture: REUTERS
Land lovers: Demonstrators protest at a fracking test drilling site in Upton, near Chester in Britain. Activists in SA are arguing that fracking companies get a foot in the door when they say they are merely exploring, while the government is not applying consistent criteria. Picture: REUTERS

Most of the recent debates on fracking have focused on the Karoo region, with much less scrutiny on similar plans to dig for gas and oil next to some of SA’s most valuable farming areas and mountain "water factories".

Rhino Resource Partners, a Texas-based company, has been pushing for approval to search for gas in a 4.4-million-hectare chunk of land in KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and the Eastern Cape. A significant part of the search area — initially encompassing about 19,000 properties — includes farm land adjacent to mountain catchment areas.

Late in 2017, despite opposition from affected parties, Rhino got the go-ahead to begin searching for a wide variety of petroleum resources, including oil, gas, condensate, coal bed methane, helium and biogenic gas in a reduced exploration area covering about 2.4-million hectares (slightly larger than Kruger National Park).

The exploration venture is led by Dallas attorney and businessman Patrick James Mulligan, who boasts about closing several recent deals in West, East and Southern Africa for offshore and onshore oil and gas.

Nearly 40 formal objections have been lodged against the exploration project by farmers, traditional leaders, environmentalists and other interest groups.

A common thread running through many of the formal appeals is the claim that Rhino has deliberately employed "incremental" stealth tactics to win permission for exploration.

The farming federation AgriSA, represented by attorney Derek Light, suggests that Rhino adopted a slowly-slowly approach to dodge the need for a comprehensive upfront environmental impact assessment.

He argues that Rhino’s recent application for environmental authorisation speaks about "early-phase exploration" only, obviating the need to explore the potential negative effects of invasive drilling methods.

"In the event that Rhino should apply for the renewal of its exploration right, it is inevitable that the further exploration operations will include invasive activities and probably the drilling of appraisal wells and hydraulic fracturing [fracking]," says Light. "Rhino seeks to avoid addressing the nature of the exploration activities it will employ in due course and its potential impacts."

In adopting this approach, Rhino hoped to gain an advantage of compelling authorities to renew the exploration rights and ensure a seamless progression towards highly invasive exploration methods.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) echoes these concerns, stating that the piece-meal approach adopted by Rhino is perceived as a "disingenuous strategy to get a metaphorical foot in the door".

"Those landowners who have attended public participation meetings have told the trust they are not concerned about the flying of aircraft for exploration activities," says an appeal lodged by the trust.

"Emphasis has been placed on the flying of the aircraft and the minimal impact it would have on the environment. However, the end goal of oil and gas extraction, with severe environmental and social impacts, has not been explained to the landowners in detail.

Emphasis has been placed on the flying of the aircraft and the minimal impact it would have on the environment. However, the end goal of oil and gas extraction, with severe environmental and social impacts, has not been explained to the landowners in detail

"As a rigorous process for authorisation is unlikely to be required to proceed from exploration to extraction — only an amendment [would do this] — authorisation should be set aside based on the lack of understanding of the ultimate project and its impacts by landowners."

Members of the Dargle Conservancy in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands say they are deeply concerned that exploration will lead to extraction, so the effects have to be assessed upfront.

They say after an exploration is successful, no projects are stopped at that stage, no matter how detrimental the effects. Rhino denies allegations that the company is lying or employing stealth tactics.

A responding document circulated by Matthew Hemming, an environmental consultant engaged by Rhino, says: "The granting of a renewal of an exploration right remains subject to the discretion of the minister … [who] will exercise this discretion using the same standard of reasonableness used when considering the grant of an initial exploration right.

"One cannot say that the granting of an initial exploration right serves as a ‘foot in the door’ to the granting of a renewal, as in both instances the minister must consider the exploration work programme submitted with the application, to which he will apply the same standard of assessment.

"A further consultative process will be initiated, meaning that interested and affected parties will not be prejudiced and will have their rights recognised under such renewal process."

Hemming and his colleagues, whose car tyres were slashed while facilitating a consultation with angry farmers at Lions River in 2015, adds: "Rhino Oil and Gas maintains it cannot yet, without conducting the early-phase exploration work, know what the future options entail.

"Without information on the scope, extent, duration and location of future activities, it is not possible for an environmental assessment practitioner to undertake a reliable assessment of future impacts."

AgriSA and Light, its attorney, appear unconvinced, arguing that ultimate approval of the Rhino project would transform the rural agricultural environment into a fragmented industrial landscape.

Light also submits the government has acted irrationally by commissioning a comprehensive strategic environmental assessment for oil and gas exploration in the Karoo but not elsewhere in the country.

He says the assessments are used as a tool to help the government formulate decisions, policies and laws based on scientific evidence.

"As it was considered to be in the national interest to commission such a high-level strategic environmental assessment, it should have been performed in respect of the whole of the country and not limited to [the Karoo]," Light adds.

The central Karoo assessment, compiled by a group of more than 200 experts, examined a wide range of financial, environmental and social risks and opportunities associated with shale gas fracking.

The authors concluded that the risk of damaging earthquakes associated with fracking and waste-water disposal could not be excluded, and there was not enough water to supply gas wells from local boreholes and other water sources.

The report also highlighted the "boom and bust" nature of extractive mining operations, the risks of underground water pollution and poisoning of humans, animals and plant life.

The EWT says the Rhino exploration area lies in a critical catchment area for water supply to Gauteng. "Exploration and gas extraction in these areas will certainly threaten this vital supply of clean and plentiful water to many of SA’s people."

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (SA) says one of the Rhino exploration areas includes the headwaters of the Mfolozi River, which provides more than 29% of the water in the Richards Bay area and feeds farming areas around Pongola and southern Mpumalanga.

"We do not have sufficient capacity to either allow for large volumes to be used for the extraction of unconventional gas, or risk water pollution caused by faulty well construction, migration of fracturing fluid in natural pathways, or the mishandling of the chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing or its wastewater," says a spokesman.

"There are numerous examples of water pollution in the US from similar operations," the fund says.

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