Fracking Dispute Spreads to South Africa

South Africa is home to rare species like riverine rabbits and mountain zebras. Activists celebrated the government’s recent passing of a moratorium on new fracking permits. (image: lexnoir.org)

A group of energy companies including Royal Dutch Shell and SASOL have leased the rights to a huge, gas-rich shale field in South Africa, where they plan to use hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas. So now, as we’ve seen in Pennsylvania, New York and the rest of the Marcellus Shale region, environmental groups and concerned citizens are lobbying the government to prohibit the controversial practice, Guardian.co.uk reported.

According to South African laws, homeowners and farmers own the surface of the land but underground minerals and resources belong to the government. That means people who own farms and property disrupted by fracking won’t even receive royalties.

And, studies continue to flow from U.S. researchers suggesting that fracking contaminates drinking water sources, endangering widespread regional ecosystems and public health. Fracking requires giant amounts of clean water, which gets mixed with sand and an array of chemicals. The shale field is located in the Karoo region, a semi-desert with scarce water supplies.

“Karoo comes from a Khoisan word for ‘thirsty land.’ Even if the chemicals were safe, and they’re not, there just isn’t enough water to spare. Water is going to be a source of conflict,” said Lewis Pugh, founder of Treasure the Karoo Action Group. “Do you think the Karoo farmers are going to let Shell show up and destroy their farms? They’re going to grab their rifles.”

Shell officials claim their fracking chemicals are biodegradable. As gas industry officials in the U.S. have touted, the company could bring thousands of jobs and energy security to the country. However, environmental activists believe fracking’s negative impact on the Earth is widespread and permanent. Greenpeace and Earthlife Africa recently lead a successful fight for the South African government to put a moratorium on new fracking permits. But Shell still owns exploration rights to 34,750 square miles. The South African Cabinet has said they’ll monitor the company’s fracking techniques to gather as much information as they can about its effects.

“The bottom line is that the poor people in the Karoo have not been engaged by the Shell environmental management plan,” said Muna Lakhani of Earthlife Africa. “Shell has made it clear they’ll only consider compensation if it can be proved that the contamination came from their wells. Think of someone poor. How on Earth will they be able to get justice?”