In March 2017, following a period of intense debate and speculation, the South African government gave its formal approval to the development of shale gas in the country’s Karoo region.
The Karoo is a semi-desert natural region of South Africa that spans across three of the country’s nine provinces, including the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape. It is estimated that there is up to 50 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of recoverable shale gas located in the Karoo; this gas, and using it as an energy source, will involve using the controversial process of fracking.
The Fracking Debate
Fracking involves directing a high-pressure mixture containing water, sand and/or other chemicals down into the earth by drilling down into the rocks below the surface. The injection of these chemicals allows the natural gas stored below the earth’s surface to flow out of the head of a well and collected to then be used to power household and business energy needs. The use of fracking to extract shale gas has received attention globally and has both its detractors and supporters.
Environmentalists are worried that the use of fracking requires a huge amount of water, which must first be transported to the site. Many are also concerned that the chemicals used during the fracking process might escape into groundwater sources and contaminate these sources or that tremors might be caused because of disturbing and fracturing millennia old rock formations. Others feel that fracking simply continues our reliance on fossil fuels and distracts governments and organisations from investing in cleaner and safer renewable options, such as solar and wind.
Supporters of fracking have argued that it can diversify a country’s energy mix, drive down local energy prices, strengthen energy security and enable access to difficult to reach places and energy sources.
The South African Position
Following an initial period of consultations and research, in which South Africa’s government weighed up the potential positive and negative environmental and socio-economic implications of fracking in the Karoo, they have now officially announced their support of it.
Speaking at the time, then South African Mineral Resources Minster Mosebenzi Zwane, is quoted by News24 as saying “Based on the balance of available scientific evidence, government took a decision to proceed with the development of shale gas in the Karoo formation of South Africa.”
He noted that, for many years, South Africans have primarily relied on coal as their main source of energy. Fracking, Zwane claims, would help diversify the energy mix, provide “cost-competitive energy security” and “significantly reduce the carbon footprint.”
Zwane also promised that the government would be open and informative. He stated, “Government will ensure that you are kept up to date about the exploration method and benefits that can be realised from the development of shale gas and informed about the mechanisms and instruments that seek to augment existing laws for the protection of water resources and for the protection of the environment.”
Even if the gas can be successfully extracted, and no harm is done to the environment in any way, it is likely that the gas will simply be exported. South Africans do not have a history of relying on natural gas for their energy needs, so much of the supporting infrastructure has not yet been developed. While this might result in increased exports, and potentially a reduced balance of payments deficit, this is unlikely to aid many South Africans who currently live in poverty and are still waiting for the government to connect them to the national grid and provide them with affordable and reliable electricity.
This author believes a preferable alternative would be to direct these government efforts and investments away from shale gas exploration and fracking and instead increase investment in the country’s successful, and internationally acclaimed, Renewable Energy Independent Power Procurement Programme (REIPPP).
In March 2018, South Africa’s Energy Minister, Jeff Radebe, signed off on a further 27 Independent Power Producer (IPP) renewable energy projects to be developed around the country. The benefits are expected to be diverse. Says Radebe, as quoted by the Energy Blog, “This initiative will enable R56 billion [(approx. $US5 billion)] of new investment in the economy over the next two to three years, which will immediately contribute to growth in the economy supporting the already positive achievements of 3.1% GDP growth in the quarter four.”
Local community ownership in the project will be significant. “Local community shareholding (equity share) in the 27 projects amounts to 7.1% (or R1.6 billion). The local community shareholders for the 27 projects will receive R5.9 billion net dividends over the 20 year lifetime of the projects. This will have substantial positive impact on the living standard of the communities around these projects. Communities through Community Trusts have full control over how the money will be spent in their areas,” notes Radebe.
61,000 new jobs are expected to be created, which is significant in a country which has grappled with persistently high structural unemployment rates for decades. According to Radebe, “In a nutshell, these projects will provide 61,600 full time jobs of which 95% is for South African citizens, mostly during plant construction specifically with a focus on youth employment.”
Furthermore, the Karoo could benefit from being the location for many IPP projects given its favourable weather conditions for solar and wind energy production. This would help ensure that socio-economic benefits are directed to rural and more marginalised communities and beneficiaries. Radebe noted that 59% of the new jobs created would be in the Northern Cape, 15% in the Eastern Cape and 13% in North West (a province not part of the Karoo). Construction of the IPP projects would not have the same environmental risks as fracking.
South Africa appears to be at an energy crossroads. Although it has given formal support for shale gas exploration and fracking, it could still realise the negative environmental consequences of this process and reverse its position. Already at a significant advantage over other developing nations, as it already has the highly successful REIPPP in place, it could instead decide to prioritise renewable energy and increase investments and opportunities in this program.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on August 28, 2018.