An uncertain future for “hazardous” fracking in South Africa

There is no fracking in South Africa at the moment. This is due to a court ruling overturning the government’s fracking regulations brought by activists. Companies have expressed an interest to frack in South Africa’s Karoo basin – a large, ecologically sensitive and water-scarce area. This has faced monumental opposition from environmental and other groups.

Following years of legal and regulatory hurdles, in May 2021 the government published new draft regulations for public comment. South Africa is considering using its shale gas resources to stabilise its energy supply.

Accessing shale gas

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling technique used to access shale gas. This is natural gas trapped in shale formations or fine-grained sedimentary rock. Fracking is the process of drilling into the earth to inject rocks deep underground with water, chemicals or sand to extract oil or natural gas deposits.

The Karoo basin

The sparsely-populated Karoo basin accounts for 40 per cent of South Africa’s landmass. It encompasses 100 small towns and is twice the size of Germany. There are at least 58 types of vegetation, 119 plant species and 20 threatened animal species in the area. The Karoo’s ecological processes happen over huge distances, and they are sensitive to disturbances. These processes take a long time to recover once disturbed.

The Department of Minerals and Energy recently announced that shale gas deposits were discovered in the area. This hints that more exploration is on the cards.

Shale gas development in the Karoo

There is an estimated 390 trillion cubic feet of “technically recoverable natural gas” in the Karoo, according to the Department of Mineral Resources. This is a lot less than initially estimated by the US Energy Information Agency in 2011. However, even at a “conservative” estimate, auditing firm Price Waterhouse Coopers said in June 2012 that there was enough shale gas in the Karoo to “transform the South African energy industry”.

There has been great pushback against fracking in South Africa ever since Shell and other companies first applied to the South African government for the right to begin fracking in the Karoo. In 2018, Shell announced that it was scaling back its Karoo operations, citing low oil prices and a lack of clarity from the government regarding fracking regulations.

Environmentalists launched the #BanFracking campaign in 2018.

image of the karoo in south africa where there is no fracking

Early morning, Karoo National Park, South Africa (flowcomm, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Opposition to fracking in South Africa

In 2011, Shell, Bundu and Falcon (partly funded by Chevron) jointly applied for exploration rights for 123,450 square kilometres in the Karoo. In April 2011, the South African government put a moratorium on fracking in the Karoo, following considerable opposition by environmentalist groups, including the Treasury the Karoo Action Group. The government said that it wanted to investigate the implications of fracking before granting the go-ahead to companies seeking licenses. The moratorium was lifted in September the following year. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) criticised the decision and complained that the report underlying the decision to lift the moratorium was not made public. The WWF was also concerned that all the implications of shale gas fracking in the Karoo were not considered.

In 2014, the Department of Mineral Resources instituted an investigation into fracking in the Karoo. It recommended that exploration continues (excluding fracking itself) while several regulatory issues were addressed. Once these were dealt with and a monitoring committee was put in place, fracking should go ahead, the department’s team recommended.

Legal and other hurdles

But, efforts to introduce fracking have encountered a number of legal and regulatory hurdles. Furthermore, there has been huge pushback by the environmental activist community.

Three companies expressed interest in fracking in the Karoo, between 2008 and 2010. The Minister of Mineral Resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, published regulations allowing for this in 2015. But, a court overturned these. In 2019, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal upheld a previous ruling that the minister did not have the authority to issue these regulations. The minister has issued new regulations.

Meanwhile, the government launched a “strategic environmental assessment for shale gas development (SEASGD)” initiative in 2015. This was to investigate the potential impact of shale gas fracking. It encompassed a variety of governmental, quasi-governmental and private bodies, as well as an array of experts in the field.

Dangers of fracking in South Africa

The SEASGD initiative’s experts identified a number of potential hazards, should fracking occur in South Africa. The findings included:

  • Shale gas workers were at high risk to air pollutants. The climate was at high risk from unintended methane leaks, unless proper mitigation measures were put in place.
  • There was not enough information on air quality emissions and greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, it was difficult to measure the future impacts of shale gas drilling on air quality. For example, there were no air quality measuring stations in the area under review.
  • There was a moderate risk of local community exposure to air pollutants due to the increase in particulate matter emissions. This already exceeded legal norms thanks to mining activities in the area.
  • Heavy diesel trucks would increase air pollution in the area.
  • Shale gas exploration could reduce South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions. This could only be achieved if the country reduced its coal reliance at the same time. But, there was a high risk that high methane emissions would offset any benefits from lower levels of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • The risks of fracking causing an earthquake were low. However, the authors “cannot categorically exclude the possibility that an earthquake may be triggered by fracking”.
  • “There is not capacity to supply water for shale gas drilling from existing water sources”, the authors said. This was due to a “severely constrained” water supply.

South Africa’s energy plans

The government is flirting with the idea of adding shale gas to its long-term energy plans. However, it is not clear whether shale gas is a viable option for South Africa. New research suggests that it is not. Shale gas could be economically viable for South Africa if it was available in large amounts at low extraction prices. However, the cost of extracting shale gas in South Africa is too high to justify it, research suggests.

Long-term impacts of fracking in the Karoo

Fracking will probably have negative consequences for the area for years to come, according to the SEASGD report’s authors. This was because decommissioned production wells would not “maintain their integrity indefinitely”. However, containment was possible if proper measures were in place. The authors were also concerned about the lack of infrastructure and institutional capacity for water management in the Karoo. This included constrained regulatory authorities “who often lack the necessary skills and the will to enforce regulations”.

They were also concerned about the amount of waste that fracking would create. They said that the fracking industry would have to treat the waste onsite as municipalities could not do so.

The potential damage to the Karoo’s ecology and landscape were “a major concern”, the authors stated.

There would be some economic benefits to fracking in the Karoo. For example, the possible creation of over 2000 jobs, the authors said. However, there was also a risk to the economy. This was due to the “boom and bust” nature of extractive industries like fracking.

Various companies have applied for rights to frack in the ecologically-sensitive Karoo.

A windpump next to the gravel road in the Karoo. Activists oppose fracking in the environmentally-sensitive area. (Hannes Thirion)

Political risk

Corruption claims have tainted fracking in South Africa. US-based Falcon Oil and Gas, Shell’s partner in the Karoo, allegedly approached Bosasa to bribe former President Zuma to get a fracking permit.

Government plans for fracking in South Africa

Despite these concerns, in 2017, Zwane told a small community meeting that the government approved of fracking in the Karoo. The decision was taken “based on the balance of available scientific evidence”, Zwane reportedly said.

Despite these plans, the government has not finalised the rules around fracking in South Africa. In May 2021, the government published proposed new rules about fracking for public comment. The rules propose banning fracking within five kilometres of water sources. The rules also propose the heavy regulation of fracking fluids to mitigate against potential water contamination. Drillers would also have to publish the list of chemicals used in their fracking fluids on their websites. The government proposed stiff jail sentences for non-compliance.

It is not clear whether South Africa plans to allow fracking as part of its long-term energy strategy. The government’s most recent, long-term energy strategy does not specifically mention shale gas. But, the government has listed shale gas among the options it is considering. In October 2019, Minister of Minerals and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, said that the country was pursuing “gas to power technologies”. “Indigenous gas like coal-bed methane and ultimately local recoverable shale and coastal gas are options we are considering”, he said.