There is no question that the debate about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is intensifying – not only in South Africa, but also in the rest of the world.
As some interested South Africans converged on Midrand last week for a debate on the appropriateness of South Africa’s current moratorium on the issuance of licences for shale gas exploration in the Karoo, shareholder activists in the US were making antifracking waves of their own.
Blocks of investors in the two biggest US oil companies, Exxon and Chevron, moved to demand greater disclosure about the environmental risks of fracking, which involves drilling of extremely deep wells and injecting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to break up shale rock and liberate the natural gas trapped therein.
Environmentalists are concerned about a variety of possible threats, from groundwater contamination and ‘fugitive’ emission to chemical spills and even fracking’s potential to provoke earthquakes. There are also concerns about inadequate wastewater disposal and/or treatment and even whether the solution is truly viable when measured on the basis of the energy return on the energy invested.
Seen through a narrow energy-economy prism, on the other hand, deploying the technological innovation (which proponents say has been in existence for 40 years and which opponents warn is less than a decade old in its current form) makes absolute sense.
In the US, it is helping to liberate a hitherto moribund resource, which is helping it reduce its dependence on foreign oil. In South Africa, it could help lessen the country’s dependence on coal and introduce an energy form into the mix that is both reliable and theoretically lower in carbon.
The response to these two arguments has varied from country to country. South Africa and France have imposed freezes, while the US and Canada are seeking an expansion of the industry, but also to improve their oversight and regulation. A UK Parliamentary group, meanwhile, has argued that it could find no compelling scientific evidence to suggest that the practice should be prohibited.
South Africa has arguably acted correctly in creating some space to establish its own policy approach, while taking some of the heat out of what has become an extremely ideologically charged debate.
But the moratorium is unsustainable. South Africa, which has moved from energy abundance to near energy poverty in less than a decade, cannot afford to abandon any possible solution. The country has to encourage a mix of energy resources and it will eventually be incumbent on its leadership to explain the merits of far-reaching portfolio diversification.
But if the freeze is lifted, South Africa will also need to ensure that the equation is properly balanced to ensure that the costs are not socialised and the profits privatised. This will require a dramatic shift from the country’s past trajectory on such matters, as is now so apparent not only in the energy milieu, but also in the area of acid mine water.
However, should a well-balanced and regulated fracking policy emerge out of the current hiatus, there is sure to be far less fretting. That said, some appear to be preparing to fight to the bitter end.