‘Step on the Gas’ Rushing into Fracking

Extracting shale gas from under the sands of the Karoo using the method called high volume hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ is highly contentious. South Africa needs alternative energy sources, taking into account our current energy crisis. However, in his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis urges us to use the environment in a sustainable way, protecting the earth for future generations. In the light of this plea for a reciprocal relationship between human beings and the environment, the important question which fracking presents is what impact the extraction of shale gas will have on the Karoo and its inhabitants as we seek to benefit from this energy source.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggests that there may be as much as 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the surface of the Karoo. According to the Economist, these shale reserves could be the fifth largest shale gas reserve in the world and could potentially provide not only about 400 years of energy to South African citizens but could result in trillions of rands profit for those who sold such gas to end users. However, there are indications that fracking could have a huge negative impact on our environment. 

France has banned fracking in its jurisdiction as has New York State in the United States. At the end of last month, New York ended a review of the fracking process which took 7 years to complete. The Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens indicated that after extensive research into fracking, the conclusions reached by the investigation were that fracking presented extensive risks to ‘land, air, water and natural resources’ as well as ‘health impacts that cannot be adequately mitigated’.   

At the end of June this year, a British charity called Chem Trust released a report which heavily criticises fracking, as the United Kingdom is debating whether it should allow fracking in its jurisdiction. The report highlights that about 38 chemicals used in fracking are extremely toxic for humans and a large percentage of these chemicals it claims are carcinogenic. The report recommends extensive changes to the regulations in the UK to ensure maximum protection of what it sees as a dangerous process. If this is accurate, the risks of Karoo groundwater being contaminated with the chemicals used in the fracking process are large.

Although no exploration licences have been granted to energy companies yet to assess the extent of the shale reserves in the Karoo, it is only a matter of time. The regulations for such exploration were just recently published in the government gazette last month. The Treasure Karoo Action Group has heavily criticised these regulations as being completely inadequate to mitigate against the risks involved in fracking. Even though the extraction of shale gas could ease our energy crisis and provide much needed employment in the Karoo, we have to seriously consider whether fracking is using or abusing the environment. With fracking, are we violating our relationship with the environment which is meant to be reciprocal?

Rev. Grant Tungay SJ

Fr Grant Tungay SJ is a lawyer by training, he left a career in law to join the Jesuits. He specialised in human rights law and has done volunteer work at the SA Human Rights Commission and also worked as an intern for the Centre of Applied Legal Studies at WITS. He worked at the Jesuit Institute South Africa for a few years in the area of social justice and is interested in the overlap between law, social justice and spirituality.

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