South Africa: Team to assess impact of Karoo exploration

Edna Molewa
Source: WikiCommons

On Tuesday, South Africa’s Departments of Minerals Resources, Environmental Affairs, Science and Technology, Water and Sanitation and Energy announced the formation of a two-year Strategic Environmental Assessment of Shale Gas Development that will explore the practical aspects of shale development in the country.

According to the statement issued by the government, the aim of the strategic environmental assessment is to provide an integrated assessment and decision-making framework to enable South Africa to establish effective policy, legislation and sustainability conditions under which shale gas development could occur. The SEA will consider both the exploration and production related activities of shale gas development across different scenarios in a holistic and integrated manner; and will include an assessment of all the material social, economic and biophysical risks and opportunities associated with the industry.

“If indeed viable deposits are found in South Africa, shale gas, as a relatively lower carbon energy source, presents significant transformative potential for the South African economy,” Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor said.

“Not only could the exploitation of deposits of lower carbon shale gas – if found, result in the provision of affordable and safe energy: it is also a potential source of job creation, foreign exchange and investment — and overall contribute towards South Africa’s energy security,” the government news agency quoted her saying.

“The Strategic Environmental Assessment will consider both exploration- and production-related activities and impacts of shale gas development, including the process of hydraulic fracturing, and will include an assessment of all material social, economic and biophysical risks and opportunities presented,” Pandor said, adding: “We believe that this will assist [the] government to create a framework and guiding principles to inform responsible decision-making.”

The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) will be undertaken by the joint forces of: the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Council for Geoscience. It will be headed by Professor Bob Scholes of the University of the Witwatersrand; a systems ecologist in the fields of global change, ecology and earth observation, who last year was elected a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.

“The three affected provinces, namely Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, are part of the national project executive committee. The governance structure includes a process custodian group compromising 15 representatives from [the] government, research institutions, industry experts and non-government organisations,” Pandor said.

Meanwhile, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa announced that the Department of Mineral Resources would publish long-awaited shale regulations within two weeks. Only last week South African minister of mineral resources Ngoako Ramatlhodi said that the regulations will be published in a month.

Last February, Nhlanhla Nene, South African Finance Minister announced an investment of R108 million ($15.4 million) for research and regulatory requirements for licensing shale gas exploration and hydraulic fracturing.

The initial government assessment showed the Karoo Basin in central and southern parts of the country to have technically recoverable resource of 485 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas. But, as portal Business Report writes, yesterday deputy Minerals Affairs Minister Godfrey Oliphant said the potential could range between 18 and 72 trillion cubic feet, which would still lead to an explosion of economic growth.

“We should emphasise the exciting growth prospects of this initiative of shale gas in our country,” he said. “We have examples where this has turned around the economies of certain countries.”

So far South African shale has not been a success. Oil and gas companies have been put off by legislation and tax regime that gives a 20 per cent free stake in new oil and gas projects to the state even before the companies launching them have had a chance to recoup their costs. Last March it became known that Royal Dutch Shell was pulling their top men from the country; a move that many interpreted as the company losing interest in South African shale.

The launch of the SEA can be a step in a right direction and seems to have gathered support from both sides of the shale argument. The Treasure Karoo Action Group, one of the environmental organisations who have been opposed to fracking, welcomed the establishment of the assessment team. Its director, Jonathan Deal, said: “Provided that this absolutely critical step is holistically managed in an inclusive and scientific manner and that the outcome of the process is permitted to precede government decisions to commit or not to shale gas, we look forward to tender our resources and energy to contribute in a positive manner.”

He was, however, opposed to continued exploration of the Karoo while the assessment takes place. This, according to Ms Molewa is exactly what is going to happen: “This strategic environmental study for shale gas will run over a 24 months duration,” said Molewa. “The process of exploration will, however, not stop. This is due to another milestone we have already registered regarding the successful conclusion of the necessary regulations by the Department of Mineral Resources which will be published soon.”

Image: Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa

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