WITNESS: South Africa's Parliament split over future of fracking

| 5th December 2016
South Africa's political parties are split over the prospect of allowing fracking to go ahead
Eight years ago the first exploration applications for unconventional gas extraction were submitted in South Africa. Last week fracking finally received official attention from South Africa's legislature during a debate that revealed how the country's different political parties gauge the benefits and risks linked to the drilling technique. JASPER FINKELDEY was at that debate.
Numerous community-organizations working alongside environmental networks such as Frack Free South Africa have repeatedly pointed to the largely untapped potential of power generated from wind, solar and waves

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) suggested that 700,000 jobs could be created around the unconventional gas industries. This is a figure taken from former Econometrix Institute.

The first ANC speaker was Imamile Aubin Pikinini who told those present:  "Eyes of patriots should be on what is good for the country." This might very well indicate that ANC executive decisions regarding the controversial drilling technique might have already been taken in favour. (The drilling technique is currently banned in France, Germany, and some states in the US among others.)

Since 2011, South Africa's Petroleum Agency (PASA) has received a total of 11 onshore applications proposing unconventional gas exploration. Current applications are reviewed via Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). These should determine the possible impacts of the proposed activities.

Oil and gas companies' applications are at a relatively early stage during which the companies themselves are still trying to determine whether it would be economically viable to exploit unconventional gas. According to the timeline provided by one of the applicants it would take another seven years to start with exploitation. It is likely that PASA will grant exploration rights as applicants can show that the exploration phase is limited in period and scope.

Opposition to these applications at initial public meetings of both interested and affected parties has focused mainly on the potential impacts of fracking as the end-product. The framework however provides that each phase of the application must be evaluated separately. This makes the engagement process a piecemeal exercise in which the elephant in the room cannot be addressed.

While potentially directly affected community members share their concerns about the environmental impacts - including scarce water resources and poor air quality - none of these qualify as legitimate objections to the current applications.

Indeed, it very clear that the EIA process frustrates community members potentially affected by future operations. A recent public meeting in Dannhauser in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province was called off after not a single  resident turned up. It was high time, then, for last week's  general public debate on the unconventional drilling technique to take place.

In parliament all opposition parties except for the United Democratic Movement (UDM) (currently representing one percent of South Africa's popular vote) expanded on their very serious reservations concerning fracking.

Cheryllyn Dudley, who had initiated the debate, raised concern that public awareness around the controversial drilling technique would be lacking. She expressed an worry that "no one knows anything about Rhino Oil and Gas".

The Texas-based firm with corporate offices in the British Virgin Islands has filed exploration applications for large parts of KZN, Mpumalanga, Free State and the Eastern Cape provinces. After the debate Dudley said she was at least satisfied with the session: "it definitely caught the attention of MP's which was our goal."

Numerous community-organizations working alongside environmental networks such as Frack Free South Africa have repeatedly pointed to the largely untapped potential of power generated from wind, solar and waves

The ruling ANC presented fracking as a clean energy process and a means to break away from dirtier coal for energy generation. Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources, Godfrey Oliphant, said that the ANC would take a "cautious approach" to exploration but highlighted the economic benefits of an energy-autonomous South Africa. Looking at the US experience Oliphant suggested that South Africa would be less dependent on energy imports. 

UDM MP Cynthia Majeke launched a staunch attack against environmentalists during her speech claiming Green activists would allegedly stand in the way of South Africa's development. She emphasized the "very small" risk around unconventional gas extraction and warned that environmentalists would remain fundamentally opposed to fracking without proposing alternatives.

This is not true. Numerous community-organizations working alongside environmental networks such as Frack Free South Africa have repeatedly pointed to the largely untapped potential of power generated from wind, solar and waves.

Last Thursday's debate showed the polarized nature of future visions for South Africa's energy generation. The ruling party reiterated its position that fracking could be a "game-changer". On the other side of the fence the opposition made repeated references to a manifesto recently adopted by communities in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape - a municipality earmarked for oil and gas exploration.

The text urges the State to "act on the call" voiced by communities to invest in sustainable forms of energy rather than extractive industries with an alleged track record of "destroyed lands, polluted water and air".

Opposition parties in parliament appeared to be possible allies for civil society organizations in their attempt to stop fracking applications. This might be the start of a united block of those parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces advocating clean energy. 



Jasper Finkeldey is a PhD Researcher at the University of Essex and a Visiting Scholar at University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is one of the Ecologist's NEW VOICES contributor.

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