A pitched battle is brewing in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). A significant portion of the province – some 7.3 million hectares, almost half its land area – is being targeted by an international company, Rhino Oil & Gas Exploration South Africa, for petroleum product exploration. The company is also targeting another area of one million hectares, including portions of Mpumalanga, the Free State and Gauteng provinces, as well as parts of the Eastern Cape. Other players in the oil and gas industry have also applied for exploration rights. All these collectively extend over vast tracts of the South African interior.
This resulted in inflammatory public participation meetings taking place October 2015 and February 2016 in the KZN Midlands in particular, where tempers ran so high that the meeting had to be re-convened, as it rapidly descended into chaos with people from all walks of life being very vocal in their opposition. The company also experienced significant opposition in the far-flung Eastern Cape town of Matatiele.
Thousands of farms, numerous small towns and cities are likely to be affected. The application for Northern KZN alone could affect 5 500 farms, while the application for the KZN Midlands area is projected to potentially affect 10 000 farms.
According to documents prepared by Rhino Oil and Gas’s own environmental consultants, risks to landowners include: farm security risks through ‘unknown persons’ potentially having access to farms, as well as those posed by the running of heavy machinery across agricultural lands and runaway veld fires; risk of farm infrastructure potentially being damaged during exploration activities; activities at seismic testing and drilling sites affecting soils and land capability (productivity), should these activities not be properly regulated and if the land is not rehabilitated; risks to biodiversity through vegetation and habitat destruction, and the disturbance of threatened wildlife and birds; risks to both surface and groundwater – from abstraction and pollution; potential air pollution; noise, vibrations and visual pollution; potential damage of heritage resources; conflicts with existing land uses (i.e. land being taken out of production); and socio-economic risks, including increased crime and the spread of diseases.
Back in 2010, South Africans first learned of the intentions of oil and gas companies to prospect for shale gas, most likely using frackig to extract the resource. In documents pertaining to the KZN applications, Rhino Oil & Gas is at pains to point out that, while exploration is unlikely to involve fracking, subsequent exploitation may do so if resources are found to be ‘tight’.
Fracking is used to stimulate oil and gas wells by creating fissures in rocks through drilling a wellbore into reservoir rock formations to increase the rate at which fluids are produced. The fractures are extended by internal fluid pressure, which opens the fractures so as to release trapped gas.
A Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) map reveals that a vast area of the South African interior is currently subject to Technical Cooperation Permits, essentially desktop studies prepared prior to requesting exploration rights for oil and gas. These regions incorporate productive, arable land, ecotourism hubs and commercial centres, and go right up to the boundaries of towns and cities.
During the 1960s then government agency Soekor established that South Africa has inland gas resources. A later estimate by the US Energy Information Administration revealed that South Africa could have as much as 480 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of ‘technically recoverable’ shale gas resources in the vast Karoo Basin – the fifth largest shale gas resource in the world. (The Karoo Basin is a geological formation extending over the entire South African interior with the exception of the coastal plain.) More recent estimates by PASA and the Council of Geosciences have put this much lower – at around 40 to 72 tcf.
In 2002, the Minerals & Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) was passed. In terms of this, the South African government gained rights to all the country’s minerals. Since then, the Department of Mineral Resources has granted prospecting and mining rights with abandon – at the expense of productive farmlands, vital water source areas, ecotourism hubs and the like.
It has reached a point where 62% of Mpumalanga Province, for example, including some of its highest potential farmland and tourist areas, is now being prospected and mined. Recent amendments to the Act enable the state to receive equity in mining operations, including oil and gas – a new kid on the block in South Africa. As 98% of prospecting applications in South Africa, according to WWF-SA (World Wildlife Fund for Nature – South Africa), result in mining rights being granted, the same is likely to be true for oil and gas exploration.
From the US and Australian experience, fossil fuel resource extraction, particularly if fracking is used, is likely to result in serious impacts to water resources, leading to its pollution and contamination by methane gas and a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, which are used to release the gas, rendering such water unusable. Fracking wastewater has proved almost impossible to treat fully.
Of concern in South Africa, designated semi-arid by the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation, are the vast amounts of water used for fracking. According to Treasure the Karoo Action Group, a non-profit involved in opposing fracking in the Western Cape, about 20 million litres are required per frack per well. Attorney Derek Light, a lawyer representing affected landowners and farmers in the Karoo, told a Port Elizabeth newspaper in 2011: “Information from the US… indicates that up to 80 000 wells could be sunk in a 30 000 hectare zone. We are looking at 230 000 hectares in [Karoo] applications and, if the same density approach is pursued, this could mean 720 000 wells… That adds up to 14.4. trillion litres of water that would be needed here… and 7.2 billion litres of chemicals discharged into Karoo soils.” As the proposed application areas in KZN are far larger, the implications for water usage and pollution would be greatly exacerbated.
The water issue is particularly pertinent in KZN; the province incorporates part of the Drakensberg Mountains, bordering Lesotho, where major rivers, including the Orange and Thukela, rise. Northern KZN supplies around a third of South Africa’s fresh water from runoff – water for Gauteng, the country’s economic powerhouse, as well as a vast tract of KZN including the Durban metro, and cooling for the Amajuba Power Station. According to WWF-SA, 8% of the land provides 50% of the country’s freshwater through runoff.
Of concern to FrackFree SA is that oil and gas exploration and eventual exploitation is likely to put the country’s most important water resources at unacceptable risk. South Africa is already experiencing water scarcity with 98% of its water being used and water scarcity is a known constraint to future economic growth. Since the late 1800s, the country has been able to engineer its way out of water scarcity by constructing inter-basin transfer schemes and over 500 dams but these are at capacity and there is no more water available; many river systems are over-abstracted, compromising ecological functioning.
South Africa and its government can therefore ill afford to countenance the rampant implementation and spread of oil and gas exploration and extraction, as this is likely to forever put the country’s already scarce water resources at risk, together with existing rural livelihoods and economic activities.
The latest round of public meetings is to be held in Northern KZN from 2 – 11 March 2016. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org