Should fracking happen in South Africa?

Photo: No Fracking Signs at Prince Albert – by Danie van der Merwe (Flikr)

The threat of fracking has been imminent in South Africa for almost a decade. But South Africa is just not ready for fracking. There are many detrimental effects of this mining activity on communities and the environment.  The regulatory requirements to mediate these effects are also not present. Allowing fracking to take place in South Africa would simply be disastrous.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique used to extract gas from deep underground, which involves digging wells up to four kilometres deep. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected at high pressure to crack shale rock formations and release the gas, which is then brought to the surface.

History of Fracking in South Africa

Fracking is not a new practice and dates back to the 1860s in the United States but started being used commercially in 2009. Currently, almost 95 percent of US states use fracking techniques. In South Africa, formal interest in fracking began in 2008; the potential areas of interest being in the Karoo and parts of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Since then, there have been a number of applications for exploration rights from companies such as Bundu Oil and Gas, Shell SA and Falcon Gas and Oil.

The threat of litigation around the imperfections of this process, and around the absolute lack of investigation into the technology and its impacts, resulted in the Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, declaring a moratorium on the issue of exploration licences in April 2011. The Department of Minerals and Resources (DMR) was instructed to set up a task team to explore the implications of fracking, the feasibility of the gas extraction, as well as its impact on the environment.

At that time, no timeline was given for when research would be conducted. The Minister commissioned a report from a group of different government agencies to inform her about whether fracking should go ahead or not. The problem with the task team responsible for the report was that it excluded representatives from key government departments. Only certain voices were heard in the report. This omission does not reflect administrative justice, a right to which we are entitled under the Constitution.

In September 2012, a little over a year later, the moratorium was lifted. Cabinet endorsed recommendations of the report on the lifting of the moratorium and mandated the Minister of the DMR to hold a series of public consultations with interested and affected stakeholders to provide further details.

Possible pollution events associated with fracking

Fracking typically requires 1000-2000 large truckloads of water, which means thousands of wells will require truckloads of water to be transported to the fracking site at significant environmental cost. Most of South Africa’s surface fresh water (98%) has already been allocated to existing users. This raises the question of how the fracking industry will source the millions of litres of water it will need to undertake its operations.

Fracking entails the pumping of toxic chemicals at high pressure, with water and sand, into underground shale rock formations. Some of the fracking liquid returns to the surface after use, and has to be disposed of without causing harm to the environment. The fracking liquid often consists of both toxic and radioactive sludge, which must be transported to hazardous waste management sites.

The most serious environmental concern related to fracking is that of ground water contamination. The potential risk to ground water comes from two sources: the injected water (water and chemicals) and the released natural gas. The water used in drilling shale gas is fused with sand and chemicals (corrosive inhibitors, surfactants, iron control chemicals, biocides, friction reducers and scale inhibitors). When these are injected down the well, there is a strong possibility of polluting underground water. Freshwater reserves can also be contaminated when the fluid is spilt at the site of the wells or in other accidental spills.

Fracking can release gas and / or vapour into the atmosphere. These emissions are either of original additive chemicals, entrained contaminants from the shale formation or the methane released by the fracking process. There is an ongoing debate about the relative leakage of methane into the atmosphere from the exploitation of shale gas in comparison to the emission rate from conventional gas. This is potentially important because a high leakage rate might mean that methane released into the atmosphere from shale gas extraction could have a higher net greenhouse gas footprint, than, for example, coal. Fracking operations should, therefore, seek to minimize all emissions into the atmosphere and monitoring processes need to be actively enforced.

Lastly, shale gas development involves continuous activity conducted over a sustained period of time (this can vary considerably, but is often several years) over the entire course of a day, seven days a week. The noise of compressors, generators and drilling, extensive truck movements, intrusive un-natural lighting overnight and the release of bad smelling chemicals can have significant negative health and well-being impacts on nearby communities, especially in the context of quiet rural and semi-rural areas that also relatively densely populated.

Do we have the regulatory requirements to undertake fracking?

What are the regulatory conditions that currently exist that would affect fracking? The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) is the central statute that governs applications for and the granting of rights and permits to conduct shale gas extraction. The requirement for the submission and approval of an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for an exploration and production right allows for the potential environmental impacts of shale gas extraction to be investigated prior to such activities being conducted.

If waste will be generated by any activity, an assessment as to whether the National Environmental Management Water Act (NEMWA) applies to the activity will need to be made and, if required, any requisite waste management licenses applied for and obtained prior to starting any activity requiring the management of the waste.

Should any company succeed with exploration, a water use license in terms of the National Water Act is to be secured through applications for individual or integrated water use licenses. Various factors will have to be considered for the granting of the licence – one of which is the availability of resources.

How effective are these measures to mitigate the impacts of fracking?

Should the South African government decide to issue exploration and production rights for shale gas fracking, the least we can expect is an appropriate regulatory regime that is implemented, monitored and enforced. The current fracking regulations and the current pollution control laws do not achieve this.

We do not have the capacity or will at local – and national government level to do the basics of waste management, such as collecting solid waste, preventing dumping, closing down illegal mining operations and controlling sewage and industrial pollution. We simply will not be able to handle the extra burden of fracking waste once fracking activities begin.

Fracking can be extremely water-intensive, depending on the precise techniques used. This may pose risks in the KZN Midlands, and other parts of the country which are currently experiencing drought conditions.

In theory, it seems that South Africa’s pollution control laws do allow for mining; however, due to the nature of fracking, the current pollution control laws may not be sufficient to deal with the detrimental and long-term effects of fracking.

The environmental impacts of conventional mining in South Africa have never been regulated effectively. To the extent that appropriate regulations do exist, their implementation has been ineffective. As a result, mining has had, and continues to have, significant negative impacts on the environment. Many of these impacts, such as acid mine drainage, cannot be easily remedied and will continue to impose heavy financial, health and environmental costs on society for the foreseeable future.

I would argue then, that with the current regulatory environment, as well as the potential harm caused by fracking, the government will need to rethink its regulatory regime before allowing fracking to happen.

by: Shaun Bergover, candidate attorney

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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