Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu has proposed a two-year extension of the moratorium on new applications for onshore and offshore exploration rights and on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) gas-extraction technique.

Earlier this month Shabangu said that government would be moving swiftly ahead with mining for shale gas. She said untapped shale gas in the Karoo had the potential to contribute to cost-efficient energy and create employment. It is unclear why this extension has been proposed.

Shabangu has asked the oil and gas industry for comment on the proposed extension, saying that oil and gas exploration and production in South Africa was in its infancy. She believes that there is an urgent need to allow the companies granted exploration licences before the moratorium was declared in February 2011 to continue their exploration work.

Draft regulations regarding fracking were published in October last year.Shabangu has promised to release regulations before the elections on 7 May. Until this is done, fracking is banned in South Africa.  Shell SA and Bundu Gas and Oil both gained exploration rights before the moratorium and are waiting for final regulations to be published.

President Jacob Zuma said in his State of the Nation Address that the development of petroleum, especially shale gas will be a game-changer for the Karoo region and the South African economy. “Having evaluated the risks and opportunities, the final regulations will be released soon and will be followed by the processing and granting of licenses.”

The positives and negatives of fracking

South Africa’s shale reserves, concentrated in the Karoo, could be the world’s eighth-biggest.

Fracking makes it possible to produce oil and natural gas in places where conventional technologies are ineffective. It has the potential to unlock massive new supplies of oil and clean-burning natural gas from dense deposits of shale.

On the other hand, fracking can create air pollution and pollute watersupplies. Wessa conservation director Garth Barnes says any pollution or degradation, particularly in the Karoo, including areas of global biodiversity hotspot status, could cause disastrous ecological, social and economic consequences.

Fracking also uses huge volumes of water. The Karoo itself is a water scarce area. Coupled with the country’s recent water shortages, the prospect of further stressing water supplies could pose serious problems at a local and regional level.

Opposition to fracking

Meanwhile the Anti-fracking Coalition of South Africa says the Karoo does not need a plan for fracking that will leave the Karoo with a toxic environmental and social legacy. The group says the people in the Karoo want agrarian transformation and says it is critical that the government listens to the people who will be most vulnerable to the impacts of fracking.

Shabangu has said that government will not brush aside the concerns of activists and that there will be a public campaign to visit communities who may be affected.