Derek Light, attorney and anti-fracking activist, attended The Shale Gas Industry In South Africa. Toward a Science Action Plan conference arranged by the Department of Science & Technology in collaboration with ASSAf on the 31st August and 1st September 2017. He compiled this report on proceedings:

The following topics were addressed by leading specialists and some opportunity given for questions and comment, namely:

  1. Technical readiness of South Africa to support a shale gas industry (flowing from the report prepared at the instance of the Department of Science & Technology);
  2. Shale gas development in Central Karoo – a scientific assessment of the opportunities and risks (flowing from the strategic environmental assessment done at the instance of the Department of Environmental Affairs);
  3. The regulatory framework;
  4. International perspectives;
  5. South African perspectives
  6. Round table discussions in:
  • Monitoring of SGD;
  • Human capital development for SGD;

I found the conference to be informative, but from a consultation point of view, frustrating.  Conferences of this nature do not allow for meaningful comment from the floor due to time constraints.

There were over 150 delegates at the conference, mainly from government, academics and representatives of the industry.  There were two members of Afriforum present and I was the only representative of land owners and agriculture at the conference.

Due to the importance of the matter, I had to avail myself of the limited opportunity to comment and as a consequence of our position, was probably the “bad guy” in the room.

I was also fortunate enough to gain the support of the SABC who conducted live interviews with me on both days and which was broadcast on the business channel (404).  This opportunity allowed me to express public views that may reach a larger group of people.  One of the clips can be accessed on the following link:

The central purpose of the conference was to unpack and consider the recommendations made by the authors of the two reports, the SCA and The Technical Readiness Report.  Consideration had to be given to the recommendations made by the authors of those reports to government.

What is apparent from the reports and the discussions is that a great deal of research has to be done in a number of areas before decisions relating to shale gas development can be taken.

It was also apparent that the legal framework would need to be revisited to properly regulate activities.

The central theme in the conference was also to establish an effective monitoring system to monitor compliance.

When calling for the SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessment) to be performed, as long ago as 2012, we expressed the view that the limits of scientific knowledge which militated against informed decision making needed to be addressed through further research to better inform government in the formulation of policy and legislation.

The SEA and other reports have highlighted the fact that there are significant unknowns (limits of knowledge) that need to be addressed through research. Read our comments on the SEA here.

It was also apparent from the conference that we lack capacity and technical readiness to cope with an industry of this nature and that it is essential that this lack of capacity be addressed through a variety of means.

It was generally accepted that the research should be done through the various universities in this country at the cost of government and the industry.

The following three (research projects) were identified at the conference, namely:

  1. The research to establish base line information on various aspects of the environment including water, air quality, seismic activity and impacts on organic aspects being conducted by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University under the leadership of Professor Martin de Wit.
  2. The CIMERO-KARIN Scientific Drilling Project under the auspices of the University of Johannesburg led by Professor Michiel de Kock;
  3. The Karoo Deep-Drilling and Geo-Environmental base line programme being conducted by the Council for Geo-Science led by Miss Dawn Black.

The research being conducted by NMMU is largely being financed by the Eastern Cape Provincial Government.  The research being conducted by the University of Johannesburg and the Council for Geo-Science is largely being funded by Shell.

Some questions relating to the integrity of the research being done with the financial support of Shell was expressed at the conference (it was suggested by Professor Martin de Wit that in fact Shell were conducting exploration under the guise of research being conducted by the aforesaid institution).

I will be compiling a detailed report on the conference for our clients and this letter serves only as a brief summary of the salient aspects discussed at the conference.

What was interesting was that in the CIMERO-KARIN project two boreholes have been drilled in the Western Region into the Whitehill “gasbearing” formations and whilst they produced interesting results from a geological aspect, they revealed no gas show.  They are dead / dry boreholes.

The deep-drilling baseline programme driven by the Council for Geo-Science has identified an area near Beaufort West in the proximity of a so-called “sweet spot” where they intend drilling to secure baseline information at depth.  The outcome of that process is eagerly awaited.

NMMU intend also establishing an area where more intensive research will be done and where in particular, 3 boreholes will be drilled, one as deep as 10000 metres (never before done in the world) and two other more shallow boreholes.  It is not clear when this will occur.

There was also talk of establishing a research centre where a prototype fracking site could be established to promote further research.

It was apparent that a great deal of time would be required to complete the research and that it would be very costly.  In the interim those representing the industry (including Shell) expressed concern about the delays.

We emphasized the fact that had there not been opposition to fracking the various studies performed at the instance of government would not have occurred and that the conference we were attending, too would not have occurred.  We emphasized further it was essential that the research first be performed and that when the results became available, this utilised to inform government, on;

  1. Formulation of policy;
  2. Regulation of the activities.

We expressed concern that government had taken a policy decision to allow shale gas exploration and fracking as long ago as September 2012 at a time when the lack of knowledge militated against the formulation of such a policy.

We are, and remain of the view, that the limits of knowledge must first be addressed before policy is formulated.  We urged government to re-consider their position in the light of the outcome of the research tabled at the conference.

We are of the expressed view further that it is not possible to formulate effective legislation / regulation of the activity until it is properly understood.

In the circumstances the conference was an important one as all role-players (but for landowners and agriculture) were well represented and there seemed to be consensus that it was essential that mechanisms be put in place to conduct the research and to develop the capacity (which all present recognised we lacked) to deal with such a development, should it proceed.

The early indications from the research performed is that the volumes of gas that may be available for exploitation are at best, limited.  Representatives from the industry and particular Shell, expressed the view that there was a less than 10% possibility of exploration delivering economically viable gas reserves.

I raised the fact that the current moratorium is limited to the designated area and the research on impacts in the Karoo region.  I questioned the rationality of such an approach and expressed concern about the impact on the rest of the country and in particular the areas under application currently in Kwazulu Natal and the Free State provinces.  No satisfactory response was forthcoming as to why those negatively impacted regions were excluded from the current process. 

It was conceded by some of the specialists that the current studies could not be utilised as a benchmark for exploration and production of shale gas or coal bed methane in other regions.

We did get a positive response from a very irritated Director-General in that he conceded that in the event that further research revealed that Governments policy decision should be re-visited, that this would occur.  I am not convinced that this will be so.

It is apparent that government is excited about the potential of SGD notwithstanding the guarded views expressed by the bulk of the specialist speakers at the conference.

In all, our attendance at the conference was worthwhile.

Regard being had to the provisions of Section 2 of NEMA (the principles enshrined therein) and the precautionary principle in general, I remain of the view that Governments policy decision in September 2012 was not lawful.

We shall persist in our efforts to persuade Government to deal with the matter lawfully.

In the interim we await the outcome of the High Court Application in Grahamstown and shall report to you thereon when judgement is delivered.

Derek Light.


Towards a Science Action Plan for Shale Gas in South Africa

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