Green IT

Fracking moratorium extended

Read time 4min 50sec

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has welcomed the extended moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Karoo.

Mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu last week announced that the moratorium on prospecting for shale gas would be extended for a further six months.

Initially, the Department of Mineral Resources planned to have a report for Cabinet by the end of July. Cabinet invoked the moratorium on proposed licences for fracking in the Karoo in April.

The department has been leading a multidisciplinary team, including the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Science and Technology, among others, to fully research all the implications of the proposed fracking.

The shale gas exploration process could affect SA's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

The proposed fracking was put forward by oil company Shell to explore for gas in an area of more than 90 000 square kilometres, in the South Western Karoo Basin.

As this is where the SKA will be hosted if SA wins the bid, such exploration could threaten SA's chances to host the mega-telescope.

Talk first

Shabangu said the extension was given to allow for public consultations on the matter before a decision is made.

She added that once the final report from the task team appointed to investigate fracking is submitted to Cabinet next month, the department will engage with the public on the issue.

Gareth Morgan, DA shadow minister of water and environmental affairs, said by extending the moratorium, Shabangu has acknowledged that there are various aspects surrounding the legislative framework, processes and the method of fracking that need further investigation.

“The minister's initial deadline of having a report ready for Cabinet by the end of July was always pure folly... While the minister has now stated that the complete report of the task team will be submitted in September, the problem remains that we do not know what the terms of reference for the study are.”

He explained that the terms of reference should indicate the length of the study, and the minister, therefore, needs to reveal exactly what the task team is studying.

Key concerns

Morgan said the DA will not rule out entirely any potential energy source.

“Shale gas may have a role to play in our energy future, [and] we are, however, supportive of further study on fracking. We are thoughtful about the needs of a growing economy, and are supportive of a diverse energy mix. But hydraulic fracturing is new to SA. We should not simply ignore the concerns that the public in other parts of the world has expressed over the process, nor should we ignore the concerns of many of our own people.”

He added that the principle concerns of the official opposition party include the scale of application areas and the legislative processes needing more work.

Mining applications, as opposed to gas exploration applications, are relatively contained in terms of the areas they impact upon - usually only a handful of portions of land at most - and the consultation can (in most cases) be done within the prescribed timeframes.

However, with gas exploration, the sizes of applications cover tens of thousands of square kilometres, without any information provided at the application stage on the actual proposed drilling sites.

“Because land owners do not know where the drill sites will be, as these will only be identified after the granting of rights to applicants, thousands of individual land owners will live in constant fear that their land could be the next drilling site.”

The DA's second major concern is around government's ability to effectively regulate fracking.

SKA threat

Val Munsami, deputy director-general for research development and innovation at the Department of Science and Technology (DST), previously said the shale gas initiative leaves a big question around the SKA.

At a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meeting earlier this year, he said the department is concerned about the exploration from an SKA perspective.

“In terms of international lobbying strategies, it's starting to creep in. The international partners are asking questions about where this is going and how it will impact the SKA.”

Associate director of the SKA SA project Anita Loots said the actual fracking may cause a problem at a later stage, but the immediate concern is around strong radio signals that will be present because of the exploration.

In response to a National Council of Provinces question this month, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said an application for prospecting has no impact on SA's bid to host the SKA.

“An application can only have impact if granted. If the Shell application is granted, and if Shell uses communication systems with frequency ranges that interfere with radio telescope operations, the prospecting will affect radio astronomy.”

Big bid

SA is bidding against Australia to host the SKA.

The final decision regarding the successful host country for the SKA telescope is expected in 2012, with work due to start in 2013. Operations will start in 2015, provided a significant portion of the array has been commissioned.

The SKA is a mega-telescope, about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope.

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