The first face-to-face meeting in more than three years between the government and prominent shale gas fracking watchdog Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG) was cordial and frank – but attitudes remain essentially unchanged and a major legal challenge is still on the cards.

Last week, action group chief executive Jonathan Deal, advocate Paul Hoffman of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa and Julius Kleynhans, head of environmental affairs at AfriForum, were invited to meet senior officials of the Department of Mineral Resources, which is driving the emerging shale gas fracking industry.

It was the first such meeting since the TKAG was founded in February 2011, initially as an anti-fracking group but since then evolving into a co-ordinating body with a much more nuanced response to mineral exploration and exploitation.

Deal told the department this week that the group shared the government’s vision of the best and most sustainable mineral exploitation options for South Africa and that it had an open mind about the supposed potential of shale gas to be an economic and energy supply “game changer” for South Africa.

“TKAG is founded and focused on a basis of treading ever more lightly (on the Earth) – not to preserve the aesthetics of nature but to ensure the sustainability of the environment.”

The meeting came less than two weeks after the group publicly petitioned President Jacob Zuma to re-instate the moratorium on fracking for shale gas, pending further scientific investigation and government action on other issues of concern.

The group gave the president a 30-day ultimatum, warning that it was otherwise “poised” for litigation that would be “expensive and embarrassing” for the government and that it also reserved the right to approach Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.

Deal said after last week’s meeting that the department had stressed this had not been called in response to the challenge to the president. The group was still waiting for feedback from the Presidency before next Thursday’s deadline.

Deal said it was “absolutely clear” the department remained committed to approving fracking and he expected final technical regulations for oil and gas exploration and production, including shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, to be published “very soon”. The draft regulations were gazetted in October last year and a 30-day comment period was not extended.

Deal said their delegation had raised five “critical” areas of debate about shale gas extraction:

  • The regulations.
  • The lack of public participation.
  • Inadequacies in the environmental management plans of Shell, Falcon and Bundu, which hold exploration licences for shale gas in the Karoo.
  • The need to apply proper scientific inquiry and the “precautionary principle” that is part of South Africa’s environmental legislation.
  • The lack of representivity of the task team that had drawn up the government’s response to fracking.
  • The department has been asked to comment.

Unknown impact

“Very little” is known about the impact of fracking for shale gas on plants and animals – even in the US, where the industry has developed in the past decade.

This is the finding of a study by a team of conservation biologists, published in the most recent issue of the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

According to a media release about the study, their research emphasises the need to determine the environmental impact of chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failure and other accidents.

“We know very little about how shale gas production is affecting plants and wildlife,” said Dr Sara Souther, one of the authors and a conservation fellow in the botany department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And in particular, there is a lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, waste-water disposal and the chemistry of fracturing fluids.”

They note that the 800 percent increase in US shale gas production between 2007 and 2012 is largely through the use of fracking, and say the chemical make-up of fracturing fluid and waste-water, that can include carcinogens and radioactive substances, is often unknown.

They reviewed chemical disclosure statements for 150 wells in three top gas-producing states and found that two out of three wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical.