Oh, frack! A million hectares face being explored for gas
Environmental groups up in arms as Rhino Oil and Gas applies for rights to explore KZN and Free State for money-spinning gas
It starts in Mooi River and Estcourt,central KwaZulu-Natal, then stretches north past nearby Winterton, Bergville and Van Reenen’s until it reaches just south of Memel in the Free State.
It also stretches westwards from its KZN starting point, skirting the Lesotho border, before it reaches Phuthaditjhaba and Clarens. And it extends past the Free State towns of Bethlehem and Lindley.
It is a massive, more than one-million hectare big, swathe of land that a mining company wants to explore for potentially lucrative petroleum and gas reserves – and environmental groups are determined to make sure the exploration never happens.
Rhino Oil and Gas has lodged an application to explore the land – which covers 6,060 farms in KZN and the Free State – and search for minerals including oil and natural gases (mainly methane).
Previous application requests lodged by Rhino have been slated by environmental groups, who say any processes that could lead to hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking”, would have devastating consequences.
Earlier this month, acting environmental affairs minister Derek Hanekom dismissed the appeals lodged by more than three dozen groups over four exploration rights granted to Rhino in September last year. The groups had complained that fracking could pollute already-stressed water sources in an area known as SA’s “water factory”. Air and soil pollutions were also raised as a concern.
Of particular concern was that although the exploration itself would not be invasive or have negative environmental impacts, it would – ultimately and inevitably – lead to various mining operations including fracking. And this over massive parts of the country.
Judy Bell, who represents advocacy group Frack Free SA, said in an e-mail that “exploration will lead to extraction”.
“Pasa [Petroleum Agency SA] has never refused to grant a right if a viable resource has been found,” she wrote.
She added: “Civil society should not have to go to court every time these destructive kind of short-term gain applications get authorised, but it seems it is the only way to halt the madness.” However, Rhino, while acknowledging these concerns, said they were jumping the gun.
“Exploration is necessary to determine if there are oil or gas reserves that can be exploited,” Rhino said in a background information document published on November 15.
The company was adamant the exploration would not be invasive; there would be no need for boots on the ground, and no need for access to any of the affected properties. Instead, the information would be obtained from “a comprehensive desktop study” and a “full sensor gradiometry gravity survey” that involves using a light aircraft.
“No seismic surveys, well drilling, pressure testing, hydraulic fracturing or water abstraction is proposed in the exploration work programmes,” the document states.
“The undertaking of the exploration work programme, as proposed, is not anticipated to result in any material impacts. No on-the-group exploration activities are proposed, and as a result there will not be any physical disturbances,” Rhino states under the Potential Environmental Impacts section of the report.
Rhino said in the document that complaints had previously been raised that “the granting of an exploration right would set in motion the development of a petroleum extraction project that would be extremely difficult to stop” and that, as such, it should not be approved.
However, it was adamant if these concerns were of value, then environmental authorisation “would not be granted” for any activities that would result in “impacts of unacceptable [environmental] significance”.
Under the Possible Future Exploration section, the company expands on this, saying: “If the future work were to pose unacceptable environmental risk, as determined by the regulated assessment processes, then it is likely that the required approvals would not be granted by the competent authorities. In such cases the proposed work would not continue.
“Rhino Oil and Gas maintains that it is not useful to speculate on the possible future direction of the project as the range of options is vast and the currently available information is very limited.”
However, it appears this will fall on deaf ears as environmental groups are seemingly ready to do whatever it takes – even if it means heading to court – to stop any potential fracking before it even gets off the ground.
GroundWork director Bobby Peek told Times Select a fight was brewing, both over Hanekom’s decision to dismiss the appeals and Rhino’s latest application.
“We are not going to take this lying down,” he said.
Just last month, groundWork was part of a number of organisations who attended the three-day “National Gasdown Frackdown Summit” in Durban. In a document produced after the meeting, the organisations say they need to address the “environmental, economic and political crisis our country and world presently finds itself in”.
Peek said meetings were planned for the past weekend “to challenge this”.
“Hanekom must come and speak to the people who are going to be affected.”