Refusal to rezone land could halt fracking

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Bubbling due to impaired cementing in an unconventional gas well in Pennsylvania. (File, AP)
Bubbling due to impaired cementing in an unconventional gas well in Pennsylvania. (File, AP)

Cape Town - In its bid to stop hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the Karoo, the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) says first prize would be to convince national government of the folly of this form of mining, but if this fails second prize would be to persuade local municipalities and provincial governments to stop it in its tracks.

Attending a debate organised by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) on the sidelines of the Mining Indaba in Cape Town, TKAG founder and chairperson Jonathan Deal said the Land Usage Provincial Ordinance allows the Western Cape provincial government to stop fracking on the grounds of appropriate land usage.

But the first hurdle for potential fracking companies – like Royal Dutch Shell – is that the local authority has the opportunity “to say yes or no to mining developments… by simple virtue of the fact that special zoning of the land (would be) required”.

Deal, who has led a spirited campaign against fracking at public and parliamentary meetings for years, noted that if national government gives a company a mining licence on agricultural land or in a sea shore reserve, “the land has to be rezoned to mining land”. If the municipality says no to that rezoning, “the answer (to fracking companies) is no”.

“Even if they (the municipality) say yes (to the land being rezoned), it still needs to be ratified at provincial level as well,” said Deal.

It is envisaged that fracking - as the process is dubbed - will occur in the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape, part of the Free State and the Western Cape, but the bulk of fracking is likely to be in the latter.

Pressed on whether he is hopeful about blocking fracking in this way – targeting his non-profit organisation’s opposition at local and provincial government in the Western Cape – Deal said: “We would prefer to see it stopped at a far higher level than that."

If hydraulic fracturing were only to be stopped in the Western Cape, “that would smack of Nimbyism (Not-in-my-back-yardism),” said Deal, who has a farm in the Molteno district of the Karoo.

Deal said there are a number of organisations, including TKAG, which want to take national government to the constitutional court. “We believe government has mismanaged the process (leading ultimately to fracking licensing) over the last four years,” he said.

However, his organisation would support moves to persuade municipalities in the Northern Cape, Western Cape, Free State and Eastern Cape – into which the Karoo spreads – to not allow rezoning for this type of mining.

He noted that New York state in the United States, Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada, Algeria, Scotland and Wales have all come out against fracking. “Maryland (in the United States) is considering voting on an eight year moratorium (on fracking),” he said.

If the organisations opposed to fracking opt to take the matter to the constitutional court, Deal said the key argument would be that fracking is unconstitutional because it would be damaging to the environment and would affect the health of local communities. “We believe government has also failed to apply its mind to international trends (against fracking),” he said.

Not such a major job spinner after all

He said government officials have been impressed with assumed figures of 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the Karoo and they also believe hundreds of thousands of jobs could be created. The reality is this figure is probably lower than 30 trillion cubic feet and fewer than 70 000 jobs would be created by fracking in the Karoo.

Henri Fortuin, a senior environment official in the Western Cape provincial administration, said national government has the power of “environmental compliance (for mining including fracking)..a we (provincial government) don’t have that power”. He confirmed, however, that the Western Cape province – where it is likely the bulk of fracking activities would occur – does have a say over land planning.

Fortuin confirmed that if a local government – for argument's sake the municipality of Beaufort West – votes against rezoning land for mining, like fracking, “It will stop there… the council can refuse to zone the land for mining.” Even if a council agrees to the rezoning, the provincial government may veto it. The provincial government has to consider the desirability of the mining activity, he noted.

Both Fortuin and Deal took part in a debate organised by the SAIIA under the banner 'From Acid Mine Drainage to Fracking? South Africa’s capacity for environmental oversight of extractive industries'.

Hydraulic fracturing takes place kilometres under ground in a well-stimulation technique. Rock is fractured by jet streams of water, chemicals and sand to extract gas.

Royal Dutch Shell’s general manager upstream Jan-Willem Eggink in December gave some indication of when the first drilling is likely. He said that if exploration licences were awarded in 2015, the first drilling is likely to start in 2017.

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