South Africa debates whether to allow fracking

A field of blooming flowers on August 10, 2009 on the outskirt of the small town of Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some fear that fracking would destroy the Karoo's natural beauty

South Africa's Karoo region is a pristine wilderness of red hills and wildflowers. It is beautiful, desperately poor and is now the new frontline in the global battle over a hugely controversial drilling practice called "fracking".

The semi-desert area of about 400,000 sq km in the west of the country is home to what could be one of the largest deposits of shale gas in the world, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) - possibly enough to supply the country with gas for the next 400 years.

But the country is not sure whether to allow the gas to be extracted by fracking.

Fracking supporters say it is the future of energy; detractors that it is an environmental disaster - and the resource-rich country does not have laws in place to properly regulate what is literally an "earth-shattering" type of exploration, which can pollute water sources.

Both sides are furiously lobbying the government - and two major reports have just been published to back up their arguments.

'Mighty big fish'

South African think-tank Econometrix says fracking would give what is desperately needed in the Karoo: Jobs and development.

The Karoo is popular with tourists because of its unspoilt landscapes - but the mostly black population battles with high unemployment and what services there are in the area are basic.

Preserving the status quo, Econometrix says, will do nothing for local communities - while, it argues, the trickledown effect of cheaper energy supply to business will help the local economy to grow and provide jobs.

"This is big stuff in terms of contribution to GDP [gross domestic product], in terms of employment potential," author of the report, Tony Twine, said before his death earlier this month.

"Even if the gas finds turn out to be a lot smaller than the estimate, we are talking about a mighty big fish," he said.

The amount of gas under the Karoo could provide 400 years worth of energy to South Africa, he said.

'Wildly inflated'

The Econometrix study was funded by Royal Dutch Shell, the energy company that wants to explore for gas in the region.

Washington-based group, Food and Water Watch, says the link between fracking and local jobs is yet to be proven.

"The US experience has shown that fracking helps oil and gas companies, not communities," says its new report Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis.

"It is a favorite industry talking point but when you examine the fancy economic models and look at the actual number of jobs created, their claims are wildly inflated," the report says.

The group which campaigns for safe and clean water and food, says that one industry study of fracking exaggerated projected job creation by 900%.

It also says that the damage to the environment and human health will be irreversible - citing examples in the US, where shale gas exploration has grown substantially in the past decade.

Last year in the US town of Wyoming, residents were told by the environmental protection agency not to drink the water because chemicals had leached into it as a result of fracking.

While in Texas, near the Barnett shale wells, environmental officers found the levels of benzene - which can cause cancer - were five times higher than allowed limits.

Ask the people?

The South African government has a dilemma on its hands.

The Karoo is an area that desperately needs economic development, and so could benefit from any jobs created by drilling for shale gas in the area, even if it is not the hundreds promised.

Image copyright bbc

Its national development plan has committed the country to moving away from coal to cleaner fuels - and this could include shale gas.

But the same plan also promises clean drinking water for all - and the US experience shows that fracking could cause water pollution.

Another problem, says Muna Lakhani of South African environmental group Earthlife Africa, is that the local population has largely gone unheard.

Shell has asked residents to sit on advisory panels.

But Mr Lakhani says that "no-one has wanted to, or been able to, put enough resources in to properly canvas the views of communities."

"Fracking has to be explained to people, particularly in poor or rural communities without internet access and only basic education," he says.

The spokesman for the department of mineral resources told the BBC they are "still considering and finalising" their report and that their decision will come soon.

The African National Congress government is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The problem is, inside that rock there might be gas.

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