An American oil company starts public meetings in KwaZulu-Natal today to set out its plans to drill holes on 10 000 farms in the hopes of finding untapped reserves of oil, gas, methane or helium.

Rhino Resources, headquartered in Texas, has been granted exploration rights to search on farms covering a 1.5 million hectare span.

But farmers – sent letters last week by Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration South Africa informing them of its intentions – are up in arms and fear that if any commodity is found, the controversial hydraulic rock fracturing (fracking) method would be used to extract it.

They believe that not only will the emergence of oil rigs spoil the beauty of KZN’s rolling hills, fracking may do untold damage to the province’s scarce water resources.

Fracking is a term that describes the artificial fracturing and shattering of underground rock to extract methane and other gases by pumping a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand up to 6km into the ground.

Rhino has scheduled public meetings with farmers across the province, to outline its plans.

‘Frack off’

“We are going to tell them to frack off,” said Mike Lowry, a farmer in the Tala Valley region whose farm, Ingomankulu, is one of the 10 000 identified for exploration.

“What gives them the right to just come here, dig and pollute the area? I understand that we do not have mineral rights to our farms, the government holds those rights but surely we should be considering the environment? What if they do find gas or oil under my farm, what then? Am I going to be told to leave?”

According to the exploration proposal letter sent to farmers last week, Rhino intends exploring farms from Richmond in the south to Ladysmith and Dundee in the north-west, passing eastwards of Mooi River and Estcourt. In the north the area extends east almost to Ulundi and includes regions around Tugela Ferry and Nkandla.

Closer to Durban, Rhino plans drilling on farms west of Camperdown in the pristine Tala Valley region.

Dale Gait, who runs a nursery on a farm in the Tala Valley, said it would be tragic if huge oil and gas rigs were allowed to disturb the beauty and tranquillity of rural life.

“What will the effects of water pollution be on our crops? That same water we are putting it on to our crops and we will eat it. Once that ground water is polluted how is it going to (be) filtered and cleaned?

“It just won’t. There is no going back or fixing it once you have destroyed the land. This is just plain stupid,” she said.

According to Rhino, the exploration phase will run over three years, with the first comprising evaluation of geological data, the second conducting “full tensor gradiometry gravity surveys”, and the third year undertaking seismic surveys which include drilling of core boreholes at target sites.

Bobby Peek, director of environmental watchdog, GroundWork, said it planned to challenge Rhino Oil and Gas’s plans.

“Considering the severe drought we have now and that any future use of oil, gas and coal is going to impact negatively on our water, shows that this is a short-sighted government policy process,” Peek said.

“People should be concerned. Because if they are going to explore on your land and find oil, gas or coal then you can kiss your (land) rights goodbye. You will lose that land. What I am really concerned about are the landowners that use the land for subsistence farming.

Financial muscle

“They don’t have the financial muscle to fight this. Many of them will not understand the implications of what is coming. We will be at the meetings with Rhino Oil this week and we will challenge Rhino Oil to make sure this will not happen,” he said.

Phillip Steyn, chief operating officer at Rhino Oil and Gas Explorations, refused to answer whether fracking would be used to extract any minerals.

“We are currently seeking approval to begin the initial stages of a three-year evaluation process which will determine if there are oil and gas resources available that might one day be able to be safely developed in order to benefit the people and economy of South Africa.

“Anything beyond that would be speculation as we do not have any firm information on where such oil and gas resources might be or what minerals they might comprise,” he said.

Steyn said they were aware of the environmental concerns.

“With this in mind, we have brought in a leading independent and employee-controlled international environmental consultancy, SLR Consulting.

“SLR has an unrivalled reputation for providing an exceptionally high level of quality to its global work.

“Through our engagement with SLR the public will know we are in full compliance with the requirements of the Regulator’s prescribed process,” he said.

Steyn said during the community meeting, they planned to show people how they were seeking approval to begin the initial stages of a three-year evaluation process to determine whether there are oil and gas resources available.

“We want to ensure that individuals in these communities understand that our aim is to help begin the development of South Africa’s oil and gas resources in a way that will enhance prosperity for the nation’s communities, help alleviate the current power crisis as well as create highly skilled technical jobs,” he said.