In May, I wrote a cautiously optimistic article about the South African government’s decision to put a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, the super-controversial, water-intensive and environmentally dangerous technique for extracting shale gas from underground layers of rock, also referred to as fracking. I warned at the time that this was hardly likely to be the end of the story on fracking in South Africa and it’s increasingly becoming clear that my initial scepticism about the moratorium and government’s intentions was well founded.
After announcing the moratorium, the government established a task team of experts to investigate the implications of shale gas fracking in South Africa. On the 18th of July, a spokesperson for the Department of Mineral Affairs said that this task team was expected to report to the minister heading the department, Susan Shabangu, “in a matter of weeks rather than months.”
Opponents of fracking, myself included, were taken aback. How was it possible for the panel to come to a decision on such a complex subject in such a short time? The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently engaged in a multi-year investigation into fracking and its results are only expected to be made public next year. How could the South African experts conclude their work so much faster and without knowledge of the outcome of the significantly more high-powered EPA study? Sounds fishy, doesn’t it!
Until recently, the composition of the task team has been the subject of much speculation, but this week it became clear that it is everything but an inclusive or representative body. In reply to a question by an opposition politician, Minister Shabangu revealed in parliament that neither the Department of Water Affairs nor the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries are represented on the panel. Considering the fact that fracking requires — and potentially pollutes — millions of litres of water, it makes absolutely no sense to exclude these two ministries in the discussion, especially in a country that is already seriously water-stressed.
Of course there are also no members of the tourism or transport ministries, none of the farmers who will be affected, no labor representatives, local business or tourist groups, no civil society or environmental organizations and — heaven forbid — no members of the public on this panel of experts. Apparently Shabangu feels that the public has already had the opportunity to comment on the official applications made by various oil and gas companies that are planning to explore for shale gas in South Africa and that there is no further need for public participation in the process. Doesn’t sound very democratic or transparent, does it?
It turns out that the “working group” established by the task team includes only representatives from the Petroleum Association of South Africa, the Council for Geosciences and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Jonathan Deal, chairperson of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, a civil society organization opposed to fracking, expects that the task team will give fracking “the green light” and while it doesn’t have any decision-making powers, its recommendations will have a very significant influence on the course of action that government will take with regards to fracking. He warns that “the constitution of the team and the exclusive nature of its mandate renders any report from it worthless in the debate on fracking.”
Of course the task team could still surprise us all with a vote of no confidence in fracking, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I suspect that we will have to continue to fight some very hard battles to keep this destructive and short-sighted technology out of our country. Watch this space.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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