Bronwyn Howard, Fracktavista resident near Utrecht in KZN, writes about the recent SLR/Rhino Roadshow to the area – Exploration Right 317ER.

Many people of a certain age will have read the delightful Dr Doolittle books – stories of a vet who travelled around the world – and even the universe-  encountering numerous animals big and small with whom he could communicate.  One of the characters (they were all characters!) created by author Hugh Lofting was an animal called the Pushme-Pullyou.  This creature had two heads, one on each end, and was always rather conflicted as to which direction it should be going in, as each head wanted its view to prevail.

The public meeting held in Utrecht in Northern KZN was somewhat reminiscent of this fictitious creation, with the applicant and its consultants attempting to persuade communities and activists to go in one direction, while those of us who are likely to be affected, would much rather go in another.  Or, preferably, not go anywhere at all.

Rhino have reduced the area of their application – according to SLR:

Subsequent to the acceptance of the Scoping Report, Rhino Oil and Gas has reduced the extent of the ER application area through the exclusion of all known protected areas with status defined under Section 48 of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (57 of 2003). Rhino Oil and Gas also acquired and reviewed additional geological data and determined from this that certain areas along the eastern extent of the application area are unlikely to be prospective for oil or gas.. See the orange boundary in the Figure below for the revised application area.

northern-kzn area Rhino Application for Oil & Gas

Well before the meeting, we had what is becoming the usual tussle about advertising. When I went into town to do some chores, which included a visit to the municipal offices, to find nary a mention anywhere!  I took this up on e-mail with the consultants, getting the expected out-of-office reply.  I was later informed that the meetings were advertised in local newspapers.  No one saw any but the consultant, SLR Consulting, did inform all registered interested and affected parties (I&APs), as they are obliged to do.  Possibly this lack of advertising was the reason the public meeting was extremely poorly attended. In fact, applicant Rhino Oil & Gas (Pty) Ltd and their entourage of SLR representatives virtually outnumbered the locals!

The meeting had begun an hour earlier with an information session, which I had been unable to attend. By the time I and a couple of others arrived for the meeting proper, it had already started.  We were told that the information session had finished much earlier than scheduled, so the time of the main meeting had moved forward.

Northern KN by Jock Tame

The SLR Consultants’ representative chairing the meeting, Matthew Hemming, was going into some detail about the underground coal gasification experiments that had taken place at Majuba Power Station near Volksrust in Mpumalanga.  While the complex process had met with some success, it had experienced some head winds related to intellectual property.  We were told that, in an effort to move away from coal (South Africa is the 13th largest carbon emitter in the world, mainly because over 90% of its electricity is supplied by coal-fired power stations), the government is keen to look at gas.  This is particularly pertinent for Majuba.  When the power station was first built (near a significant coal resource that was subsequently opened up for mining), it was found that the coal could not be mined.  After initially mothballing Majuba, the facility was re-opened following the electricity crisis in 2008 – but coal now had to be trucked in from mines further afield, something that continues today.

Almost as if anticipating some of the questions I had in mind, Hemming glossed over the renewable energy alternative, saying that the technology had become ‘too cheap’ to be viable.  As anyone who has been following this issue will be aware, the fact is that, if individuals and businesses switch to renewables, they will no longer need to pay Eskom or municipalities for power, resulting in some loss of revenue for both.

During the meeting, Hemming and Rhino’s geologist, Travis Smithard who had attended as their representative, continuously reiterated that the initial exploration phase – which has been scaled down since the Scoping Report was released and commented upon – will now only do a non-invasive aerial survey of the application area to establish whether and where any technically recoverable petroleum resources, especially gas, lie.  (Writer’s note:  This is likely to be coalbed methane gas in this area, which is also subject to coal mining, with methane occurring in association with the coal.)   We were informed that the initial application area of two million hectares has been considerably reduced due to the fact that initial studies indicate that oil and gas resources are unlikely to lie in the eastern part of the former application area (mostly in Zululand).  Hemming showed us a map (one that had been circulated by Frack Free SA) showing all the application areas – by Rhino and other oil and gas entities – in KZN, Mpumalanga and the Free State.  He mentioned that some areas had been reduced (northern KZN and the KZN Midlands) and that some other applicants had withdrawn.

Nomandien Pass by Jock Tame

At the public meetings in Dundee way back in March 2016, we had been told by local geologists that the geology in this region is extremely shallow and, if fracking is used to recover petroleum resources (which is likely because many are unconventional or ‘tight’ resources, being locked up in the geology), this will result in inevitable and possibly irreversible pollution of the region’s water resources.  I queried this with Smithard and was told that, in the case of petroleum resources, deposits are generally located much lower down (1 – 2 km underground).  When asked directly, he said that conventional drilling would take place but did not mention whether fracking would happen.  Hemming said that this would necessarily depend on the nature of the resource, which would only be known once the initial exploration phase (the one currently under application) was completed and had been assessed.

It was also confirmed that Rhino have its obligatory B-BEE partner, a company called Glen Blue, but that no production agreements have yet been signed.

I told Hemming and the other SLR and Rhino representatives that both Frack Free SA and the residents of these areas are very concerned about these applications.  In KZN (including northern KZN), many of these applications fall within important water source areas for the country.  Catchments in northern KZN supply water to Gauteng and a significant chunk of KZN.  It is, I said, our belief that allowing even the first part of a series of exploration phases to proceed was the thin end of the wedge and would lead to concessions having to be made all the way through until a production right was achieved if commercially viable resources were found.  Hemming disputed this, saying that phase one, which is now taking place, is non-invasive and won’t involve fracking, drilling or any other invasive form of exploration.  He then took the meeting through all the various exploration phases that would be required before a production right was even applied for, explaining that, should the outcome of any phase be unfavourable for Rhino, the process would halt because it would be pointless to continue.  I said I remained unconvinced.

Smithard then stepped in, pointing out that a number of issues had to be resolved before the applicant would proceed with a production right application, including whether the resource could be extracted at all, the size of the resource, the flow rate, how much water would be required for drilling and where this could be obtained, the mitigation measures required and the costs thereof and so on.  I then asked whether Rhino would be embarking on such exploration if they did not mean to ultimately extract the resource, all things being equal.  He said that they would and that Rhino is considering spending an amount of USD 30 million on exploration.

It was also mentioned, without anyone asking about it, that Rhino would not be providing any long-term jobs to locals because they would be looking for personnel with proven oil and gas experience, which South Africans generally don’t have.  However, Hemming qualified this by saying that, if government decided to invest in the sector and provide appropriate courses and training, this could change in the future.

brahmin-cattle-utrecht by jock tame

Bronwyn’s concern about water vs oil and gas

The issue of water remains the ultimate concern in KZN.  According to a WWF-SA study, 50% of the country’s water run-off occurs over just 8% of its land area.  Northern KZN is situated within that 8% with a number of upper catchments that supply catchments ‘downstream’.  These include the Vaal Basin (which supplies Gauteng), the Buffalo River (which supplies a large part of KZN and joins the Thukela River at the Mooi River confluence), and the iMfolozi River, which rises near Vryheid.  Chelmsford (Ntshingwayo) Dam is of tremendous importance locally, as the dam supplies Newcastle and surrounding areas, including the towns of Hattingspruit and Utrecht, with water.  It also provides an emergency supply to farmers, as has happened during the current drought.  Part of the catchment for this essential water storage facility is included in Rhino’s northern KZN application area.

South Africa is, according to the UN Food & Agricultural Organization, the 30th driest country in the world.  98% of the available fresh water is already being used.  The water supply to Gauteng, including the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, is being augmented by water from Lesotho.  South Africa has a history of dealing with water scarcity by moving water around from areas of low demand to areas of high demand via complex inter-basin water transfer schemes.  But these do not increase the amount of water available.

Certain, later phases of oil and gas exploration may involve shothole drilling and even experimental hydraulic fracturing (aka ‘fracking’).  This is a process where unconventional resources of oil and/or gas are released from rock formations by pumping a mix of sand, water and chemicals into a well and fracturing the rocks to release the gas, which then flows up the well to the surface.  However, wells often breach aquifers and water tables.  In the US numerous wells have been found to leak, despite being encased in concrete (1% of wells leak on first use, due to the cement cracking), creating pathways for water and the contamination thereof.  The process uses millions of litres of fresh water (Treasure the Karoo Action Group estimates this to be in the region of 20 million litres of water per frack per well in South Africa), about half of which is likely to be contaminated when it comes back to the surface.  In the US, at least some of the chemicals used cannot be processed by conventional water treatment plants.  In some places, highly contaminated water is stored underground in injection wells in that country; the long-term consequences of this are unknown.  This water is also effectively removed from the environment as it cannot be released to form part of the normal hydrological cycle and is effectively ‘lost’ forever.

These are the main reasons why it is essential that all such oil and gas applications are stopped immediately, before they can move into even the first phase of exploration.  South Africa, an arid country prone to droughts and with increasingly stretched water supplies, cannot afford to lose millions of litres of water to potential pollution for the extraction of a hydrocarbon resource (gas, regardless of the type, is also a fossil fuel).  Allowing such applications to proceed could well create a humanitarian crisis that will not easily be resolved – one that is likely to be exacerbated by a slew of climate change impacts, including water scarcity.

Thanks Jock Tame for the photographs of the area.

secretary bird Jock Tame


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