Fracking in the Karoo: It all now hinges on the environmental assessment and the law.

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The first “green” light has been given to shale gas fracking in the Karoo basin. The South African government promulgated the relevant regulations authorising exploration and the process has begun.

However, it is a condition that exploration and production activities related to petroleum are subject to the requirements of the National Environmental Management Act and any relevant specific environmental management legislation.

Before exploration and production activities related to petroleum may commence, the holders must be  in possession of an Environmental Authorisation issued in terms of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, 2014.

Business Day reported on 12 May 2015  (read more at BDLIVE) Minister Edna Molewa as saying that the exploration licences granted to companies would yield important information about the extent of shale gas resources in SA, which would inform the assessment. The assessment in turn may affect future rules for companies operating in this industry.

The strategic environmental assessment will be used to reinforce and strengthen aspects of the regulations if necessary.

Business Day reports further that the assessment is expected to take two years, and will be led by Bob Scholes, Wits University ecology Professor. He is a world-renowned scientist, and is among the co-authors of a report compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. According to Prof Scholes its aim is to provide the country with the evidence it needs to make sensible decisions round the exploitation of shale gas .

The assessment is apparently expected to cost R12.5m and will involve the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, and the Council for Geoscience.

A wide range of stakeholders are reported to be included in the work, from those staunchly opposed to extracting shale gas by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to those who strongly supported it.

The study area would cover the core of the Karoo, spanning an area of more than 125,000km², and would consider the entire lifecycle of shale gas exploitation, from the initial exploratory drilling to final rehabilitation of sites.

Steyn Botha looks at this environmental impact assessment process in the context of South African legal practice and the difficulties experienced in those processes in the past. Our courts have issued several guidelines which must be followed in order to ensure that the process will survive legal scrutiny. Several movements which are concermed about the environmental impact of the proposed new industry will no doubt keep a close eye on the EIA process and be sure to question any aspect of it which appears not to comply with the environmental legal frameworks and judicial guidelines.  Read more.

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