Cape Town - The first licences for hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, should be issued this year, an official from the department of mineral resources said in Parliament on Wednesday.
"Shale gas is still seen as a game changer," said Setepane Mohale, chief director for promotion and international co-ordination at the department, in a briefing to the committee on mineral resources.
Applications were already being received after regulations were passed last year and licences would only be granted if the applicants complied with regulations on fracking, and transformation requirements.
Hydraulic Fracturing is defined in the regulations as "injecting fracturing fluids into the target formation at a pressure exceeding the parting pressure of the rock to induce fractures through which petroleum can flow to the wellbore".
A department research paper said the process required the use of significantly large quantities of a base fluid, usually water, together with a small fraction of sand and chemicals pumped into the reservoir with enough pressure to create fractures to allow the gas to be produced.
This method of extracting resources has environmentalists up in arms over the amount of water needed and the potential long-term damage to the environment, which they say is not completely understood.
The department has argued that, if executed responsibly, fracking could put billions into the state's coffers and could also go a long way to providing desperately needed jobs.
Earlier on Wednesday, The Witness reported that Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration South Africa intended to explore over 3.2 million hectares of land in northern KwaZulu-Natal, affecting areas such as Ulundi, Melmoth, Pongola, Newcastle and Vryheid.
The company wants rights to explore two sites in the Free State, the Eastern Cape, and two sites in KwaZulu-Natal, including Pietermaritzburg and its surrounds.
The company is based in the Virgin Islands and is seeking to explore almost 7.4 million hectares of land in South Africa, of which more than half is in KwaZulu-Natal.
These areas all fall within the Karoo Basin geographic area of South Africa.