By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
For nearly five years, things have been eerily quiet on the Karoo’s fracking front.
The last major headlines came in October 2017 when Eastern Cape farmers and Graaff-Reinet lawyer Derek Light’s team shot down in flames the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy’s attempt to publish environmental fracking regulations.
From then on, the drought and the pandemic became the major Karoo issues.
A Flurry of Fracking Regs
In July 2022, things changed.
The Department of Water & Sanitation suddenly issued a press release on 7 July 2022, detailing their plans for an insultingly cursory series of consultations on draft regulations published in May 2021 regarding unconventional gas extraction.
Public meetings would be held, one per province between 11 and 20, they announced. In rapid succession they were to meet communities in Theunissen in the Free State, Richmond in the Northern Cape, Beaufort West in the Western Cape, Lephalale in Limpopo, Volksrust in Mpumalanga and Matatiele in the Eastern Cape.
Later the dates were extended by two weeks.
Some of the locations chosen were confounding. Matatiele is at least 470km distant from the most likely proposed shale gas field (around Cradock). Rhino Oil & Gas used to have a concession close to Matatiele, but in February 2022, the company withdrew its application to explore for gas in KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State.
Scant days later (on 11 July 2022), another Government missive on shale gas in the Karoo appeared. This time it was from Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, calling for comments on draft regulations on unconventional gas. The deadline was set at 25 August.
Social media, especially the many anti-fracking groups on it, lit up with startled and indignant comments. German hydrogeologist Dr Stefan Cramer, who came to live in the Karoo with his wife Erika for several years, sent in insightful comments, observations and recommendations.
Jonathan Deal, founder of Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) gave his comments along with AfriForum. Marilyn Lilley, a digital stalwart of the anti-fracking battle, posted every new development across several Facebook pages, including the one Deal started in 2011, called Chase Shell Oil out of the Karoo.
It was a throwback to those bad old days, about ten years ago, when every second month felt like a game of Whack-A-Mole. Would-be frackers and government officials kept popping up all over the Karoo, only to be confronted by angry locals.
But as they years rolled by, it seemed that only Shell and the Government had any real skin in the game. The others that applied for licenses didn’t seem as well planned or committed. Shell executives by contrast, were embarrassingly keen to engage with Karoo people, no matter how small the interest group.
The Cradock golf course club once voiced some interest in Shell’s plans. At which five top executives flew to Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha) from Cape Town, probably business-class, hired a car, and stayed in a top guesthouse, all to address 18 people. Who remained unconvinced.
After a while it fell to the lacklustre Mosebenzi Zwane, then Minister of Mineral Resources, to do a fracking dog and pony show. He came to Cradock in 2016 hoping to get some support from traditional ANC supporters. He came horribly short.
The Only One Not Surprised
Back to present day. Graaff-Reinet lawyer Derek Light was probably the only one not taken by surprise by the sudden fracking flurry. In fact, he’d been expecting this for a while.
“It was predictable,” he commented. “The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy tried to jump the gun in 2015, and we won the case against them in 2017, by pointing out that it is not their mandate to issue regulations to protect the environment. Their attempt was illegal.”
“The three Ministers of Water & Sanitation, Environment and Mineral Resources and Energy have to engage with one another,” he said. “The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) comes into play, which is why Barbara Creecy’s Department has invited comments on the draft regulations, under NEMA.”
“The Minister of Water and Sanitation published draft regulations to regulate water use licenses for fracking in May 2021 and we filed comment and made representations in response thereto. The current consultation process relates to that.”
Until it is properly regulated, fracking for exploration or commercial exploitation cannot be allowed by law, Light confirmed.
“And so far, everything that Government has put on the table has been severely flawed.”
A Fracking Loss of Appetite
Derek Light shakes his head at the Government’s stubborn belief in Karoo shale gas even though all the corporates seem to have quietly slipped away.
The list is long.
Sasol was one of the first to be granted a Technical Cooperation Permit to explore for shale gas in 2009. It had strong partners – Chesapeake Oil and Statoil – and at the time also had fracking interests in Canada. But late in 2011, it allowed its TCP to lapse over a massive concession that covered most of the Free State and a large chunk of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Preliminary results did not look promising, said the company. They also pointed out drilling costs would be six time higher in the Karoo, compared to Canada.
Sungu Sungu, which had an even larger concession area, stretching over the Northern Cape, Free State and northern KwaZulu-Natal. But they never seemed anywhere in the running, and in 2016, a company official from Sungu Sungu was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying:
“It’s no longer worth it. There are many objections. We decided to pull out.”
Others popped out of nowhere and vanished without a trace, including Moonstone, which applied for a licence to explore for shale gas in a large swathe of land near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Those first in line, and those with a real chance, included Shell, with a 90 000 square kilometre concession; Falcon, with a 30 000 square kilometre concession; and Bundu, later taken over by Australian Challenger Energy, with 3 200 square kilometres.
Not a Peep
Shell in particular pushed hard to get regulations passed and exploration going. But in 2017, they threw in the towel, citing a low oil price and their unhappiness with the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act at the time.
Even when the oil price soared recently to $120 a barrel, which would easily fund expensive exploration, they didn’t budge.
Light confirmed: “We haven’t heard a peep out of Shell since they disinvested in 2017. They left only a skeleton gas exploration staff complement here. Bundu and their Australian underwriters have been dead quiet, and Falcon have made it clear they want to on-sell. They have no capacity to pursue this on their own.”
In 2018, Rhino Oil & Gas Exploration South Africa were granted permission to explore for petroleum and gas over nearly 6 000 farms, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal. Thousands of farmers fought a bitter legal battle against them. In February 2022, they withdrew their application. They denied they were wanting to frack for shale gas, although they mention Karoo shale on their website. Instead, they maintain they were looking for biogenic methane and other gases.
“Of course, we have no idea what trade-offs or promises are being made behind the scenes, if any,” cautioned Light.
He was afforded an intriguing glimpse at how things work between the Government and corporates shortly after Gwede Mantashe was appointed Minister of Mineral Resources in 2018. Light’s name was (probably mistakenly) included on the guest list of one of Minister Mantashe’s working breakfasts with oil and gas industry representatives. Light accepted the invitation and attended the breakfast.
“I was the only person there not from the oil industry. I heard Minister Gwede Mantashe make a whole lot of promises to the corporates, saying the new legislation would be passed quickly, there would be a streamlined application process, and they would make it easier for companies to secure rights.”
What the SEA revealed
Not everything the Government has done when it comes to Karoo shale gas has been venal and inept. The shining exception was the Strategic Environmental Assessment on Shale Gas Development (SEASGD), started in 2015. This was something done at the request Eastern Cape Karoo farmers and their legal teams.
It was the most holistic and far-reaching environmental study ever carried out in South Africa. It drew on the expertise of 200 respected local and international scientists and specialists in 19 different fields.
After nearly two years, the SEASGD brought home some unpalatable truths to pro-frackers. One is that, even at optimal levels of exploitable shale gas reserves, a maximum of 900 shale gas jobs would be open to South Africans. The other 3 000 jobs would be reserved for foreigners.
For scale, consider that the Eastern Cape’s mohair industry alone employs 25 000 people.
A Bleak Dance Floor
Most geologists have already written off unconventional shale gas development as a near-impossibility in the Karoo. The dolerite that rose up under the Karoo as molten magma 182.5 million years ago almost certainly burnt off most of the gases that the frackers seek. It has also created a high risk and expensive drilling environment. Half of the licenced region would be off limits to the frackers anyway because of the Astronomical Advantage Act (the Square Kilometre Array) and conserved areas.
“But even though Shell and so many others have pretty much walked away from the opportunity, Government still seems determined to exploit shale gas,” said Light.
“At the gas conference convened by the Academy of Science in South Africa (ASSAf), held in Gqeberha in August/September 2017, it became apparent that shale gas reserves had been overstated and the Shell delegate lamented the delays in establishing the regulatory framework, stating that there was a less than 10% chance of establishing viable gas reserves.”
Apart from the ANC government, there is only one other party passionate about fracking at the moment, and that is Gayton McKenzie, mayor of Beaufort West. He has vowed that fracking will take place in the Central Karoo “with or without Shell”.
So, on South African shale gas dance floor, there still seems to be a bit of movement. But it’s only the politicians that are still shuffling about there, in small, disconsolate circles. Everyone else seems to have left the building.
Julienne du Toit is the Karoo-based co-author and publisher of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II, Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa, and Karoo Roads III due for release in September 2022.
For more details, contact Julie at email@example.com