Pietermaritzburg - A company wanting to explore the province for natural gas has admitted that “fracking is a possible end goal”.Environmental consultant Matthew Hemming, of SLR Consulting and acting on behalf of Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration South Africa, made the statement at a heated meeting at Ashburton Community Hall in the first of 11 public consultation meetings being held throughout the Midlands.Rhino, a Texas-owned company with its corporate offices in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, has applied to the Petroleum Agency of South Africa to explore 1.5 million hectares, including 10 000 farms, near Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith and Nkandla, looking for natural gas deposits in the main, and minerals. But in order for the company to proceed, it needs to present the agency with an environmental impact assessment which includes public consultation.The 100-strong crowd that attended the first hearing included landowners, developers, business owners, farmers, councillors, environmentalists and a “spiritualist”, and gave a resounding “no” to any exploration.While a variety of reasons for their rejection were given, in the main it was the feared detrimental effect any extraction of natural gas could have on the water table, while they maintained the area was also water scarce.African Conservation Trust CEO Francois du Toit asked Rhino COO Phillip Steyn whether he agreed that fracking was the “end goal”.Initially Steyn said “we don’t agree”. Du Toit then asked if there were “other technologies yet to be invented” that would be used, to which Steyn replied “The end goal is extraction”.Finally, pushed for a “yes” or “no” answer, Steyn said “I don’t know”.Hemming then interjected and said: “Depending on the nature of the geology, fracking could be [one of the mining methods used]. Fracking is a possible end goal,” he said.Steyn said while Rhino had not done fracking before, their US owner had done so and had had “no [environmental] incidents” to his knowledge.Hemming maintained that they were following the legal requirements.“The environmental impact assessment process from start to finish is 300 days. It is our job to develop the best understanding of environmental challenges,” he said.Feisty crowdIt was a feisty crowd at the Ashburton Hall and among them was Kelly Pearson, a Grade 10 pupil at St John’s DSG. She hand-delivered a petition with approximately 200 signatures of pupils at the high school, objecting to the “early phase petroleum exploration of the central KZN region”.Reading a statement on behalf of the signatories, Pearson said: “I believe the risk to soil and water health will have serious repercussions ... this exploration will be the precursor to fracking in the future. I strongly object to this activity, which threatens the future heritage of our children.”There were a few heated moments during the nearly four-hour meeting. Besides an early exodus of people who called the meeting “flawed” and “illegal”, a pensioner told Hemming that fracking would “take place over my dead body”, to which Hemming replied “Perhaps”.In another incident, self-proclaimed spiritualist Brett Austin told Hemming to “F**k the process”, as they stood nearly nose to nose.African Conservation Trust CEO Francois du Toit mocked the “public consultation process”, calling it a “box-ticking exercise”, while Durban-based and globally recognised environmentalist Desmond D’Sa called on the affected population to “not even allow [Rhino] through the door” for an opportunity to operate.“Stand up against them and organise. [For them] it is about money and profit at the expense of our children,” he said.However, there was a notable lack of representation from traditional authorities, the local municipality and the Ingonyama Trust Board.Resident Hawu Mbatha said Rhino and the consultants had “excluded” people who were not “English-speaking”. “You did not even go to radio or print media to address these people,” he said.PetitionOver 2 000 people have signed the “Don’t Frack our Water Factories” petition on community petition website Avaaz against the possibility of fracking in KZN.According to Dargle Conservancy’s Nikki Brighton, there is also a buzz on social media opposing Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration’s application, with the hashtag #nofrackingkzn “starting to appear in all sorts of places”.“NPOs and provincial residents have been registering as interested and affected parties and preparing questions to ask environmental consultants acting on behalf of Rhino SLR Consulting at a series of public meetings being held this week,” she said.Brighton said pupils from schools in the Midlands had joined in by writing letters in opposition to fracking to the government, creating posters and holding impromptu demonstrations.