The South African government has commissioned an investigation into the possible effects and potential mitigation opportunities of shale gas if it is found in the country.
"If indeed viable deposits are found in South Africa, shale gas, as a relatively lower carbon energy source, presents significant transformative potential for the South African economy," Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said in Pretoria on 12 May.
The government had commissioned the Strategic Environmental Assessment of Shale Gas Development to look into the resource, she explained. "Not only could the exploitation of deposits of lower carbon shale gas – if found – result in the provision of affordable and safe energy, [but] it is also a potential source of job creation, foreign exchange and investment."
It would also contribute towards South Africa's energy security, Pandor said. She was speaking at a media briefing as the representative of a ministerial task team comprising the departments of Environmental Affairs, Mineral Resources, Energy, and Water and Sanitation.
The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) was launched at the briefing. Pandor explained that the assessment would be a scientific undertaking done to improve the understanding of the risks of and opportunities for shale gas development. "We believe that this will assist [the] government to create a framework and guiding principles to inform responsible decision-making.
Exploration and production
"The Strategic Environmental Assessment will consider both exploration- and production-related activities and impacts of shale gas development, including the process of hydraulic fracturing, and will include an assessment of all material social, economic and biophysical risks and opportunities presented," she said.
The study area will include regions of the Karoo Basin which currently have exploration rights; applications are pending in Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Western Cape. It will run over 24 months.
A project team comprising the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Council for Geoscience will undertake the SEA. Systems ecologist Professor Bob Scholes of the University of the Witwatersrand will lead it; he is also a research associate of the CSIR.
"The three affected provinces, namely Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, are part of the national project executive committee. The governance structure includes a process custodian group compromising 15 representatives from [the] government, research institutions, industry experts and non-government organisations," Pandor said.
The people of South Africa would most benefit if it was found that viable deposits of lower carbon shale gas existed, enabling exploitation, extraction and development.
"We do, however, recognise we are not at a stage where we can say with certainty that there are significant deposits."
Impact on the environment
The interdepartmental task team must consider:
- Environmental impact on ecosystems, waste management, etc
- Challenges of impact on water, given that South Africa is a water-scarce country
- Possible impact on the already progressing Square Kilometre Array
- Establishment of a regulatory regime that would guide all processes
The assessment must be "salient" and cover all the important issues and concerns around shale gas. It must include groups of leading experts to ensure "credibility," and be grounded in transparent and participatory processes to ensure "legitimacy," Pandor said.
"To further ensure that the SEA process is 'salient', 'legitimate' and 'credible', the project team will be supported by a multi-author team comprising of scientists and experts from a broad range of sectors from across different provinces of South Africa… [to ensure] that a broad balance of interest is represented. Each strategic issue identified will be addressed by the teams of authors, who are recognised experts and knowledgeable persons. The work of the multi-author teams will in turn be reviewed by independent experts."
Informed by existing literature and public concerns, the following strategic issues have been identifies as part of the scope of the assessment:
- Biodiversity and ecosystem services
- Water resources (surface and ground water)
- Economics (including agriculture and tourism)
- Spatial planning
- National energy planning
- Waste management
- Human health
- Air quality
- Social fabric
- Heritage resources
- Sense of place