The hunt for gas and oil in a massive strip of KwaZulu-Natal is likely to be scaled down considerably after a major public backlash and threats to take a Texas exploration company to court.

The local subsidiary of Texas-based Rhino Resources has applied for environmental authorisation to search for petroleum on almost 10 000 farms in the Midlands – an area covering more than 16% of the province’s surface area.

However, after a series of heated public meetings in several towns last month, Rhino consultants were cautioned that they faced court action because of potential contraventions of the new “fracking regulations” that ban any drilling or hydraulic fracturing in areas where this could pollute rivers, boreholes and wetlands.

At public meetings in Ashburton, Lions River, Mooi River and elsewhere, Rhino faced strong opposition from local farmers and members of the public, some waving placards reading “No fracking” or “Go frack yourselves!”

The tyres of a vehicle driven by Rhino environmental consultant Matthew Hemming were slashed at the Lions River meeting.

Jeremy Ridl, a Durban environmental attorney and co-director of the Earthwatch organisation, has cautioned Rhino against involving the public in a largely “pointless” consultation process.

This was because government regulations published earlier this year prohibit any gas fracking or oil well drilling within 5km of municipal water well fields, within 1km of a wetland or within 500m of boreholes and water courses.

Overall, said Ridl, these regulations would restrict any future fracking to a very limited area of the province.

It was therefore unfair to ask communities to invest their time in an environmental impact assessment process covering almost 1.5 million hectares of the province, in the knowledge that fracking and oil drilling could never be permitted in this entire area.

He said the consultants were obliged to first conduct a detailed mapping exercise to identify which areas were off-limits to fracking. The public consultation process should resume only once this mapping exercise was completed.

In a recent letter to Hemming, Ridl said Earthwatch was instructing its attorneys, Majola and Co, to start legal proceedings for an interdict restraining Rhino from proceeding any further with the EIA process.

“Unless you confirm that the EIA will indeed be limited to unrestricted areas, legal action will follow.”

Responding to Ridl’s e-mail, Hemming confirmed that he had advised Rhino to consider revising the application area to exclude areas that were subject to “restrictions”.

These included land close to boreholes, wetlands and other water resources, as well as residential areas, cemeteries and other land being used for public purposes.

Hemming said excluding such areas from exploration had always been part of the scope of the EIA process.

“But the message received from the public is to get this done sooner rather than later.”

Meanwhile, the Treasure the Karoo action group has urged communities to keep lobbying government officials against allowing any gas or oil drilling that could threaten valuable water resources and sensitive environments.

Action group chief executive Jonathan Deal said: “It would appear that new applicants are trying to sidestep the legal issues facing fracking by applying for a more general exploration right – simply for ‘petroleum’.

“Communities in KZN and the Free State must be on guard against this. It is common knowledge that Soekor spent years drilling deep holes in the 1960s and found no oil. At that time they weren’t interested in the potential of shale gas. We see the new, smarter applications as a Trojan horse to get in and get drilling without mentioning shale gas.”

Julius Kleynhans, AfriForum’s head of environmental affairs, has also warned of “an imminent court action” to contain further shale gas exploration rights being granted.