THE Karoo, “the land of great thirst”, covers much of the 800 miles between Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital, and Cape Town, on the country’s southern tip. The semi-desert area (pictured) is known for its arid beauty and aching poverty. But deep beneath its sheep- and ostrich-dotted expanses could lie untold wealth—in the form of natural gas.
America’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) suspects South Africa might boast shale-gas reserves of around 485 trillion cubic feet. The gas would only be accessible by hydraulic fracturing–“fracking”–pumping water and chemicals into rock at high pressure. In April 2011, in response to opposition from environmental groups and the local community, South Africa’s government slapped a moratorium on fracking.
But last month Collins Chabane, a minister in the president’s office, announced that the cabinet was lifting the ban. A study by a technical task team appointed last year had eased their concerns, said Mr Chabane, and clearly showed that exploration was safe. The report–of which so far only a summary has been released–concluded that keeping the moratorium in place or too stringently regulating exploration would be costly to South Africa. Three foreign companies–Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil Gas and Sunset Energy–have been granted licences to explore for gas.
If the EIA estimates are accurate, the shale gas fields in the Karoo would be the fifth largest in the world. A report published earlier this year by Econometrix, a South African think tank, argued that fracking would bring what the area so urgently needs: jobs and development. It would be transformational, gushed the study, which was sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell. If only a tenth of the estimated gas can be extracted, thousands of jobs could be created. The gas extracted could provide South Africa with 400 years’ worth of energy. For a country that regularly endures power cuts, that would mean a brighter future. The government reckons that if 30 trillion cubic feet of gas is produced, the sales value would be almost a trillion rand.
But many are still sceptical. No one knows how much gas is extractable. The numbers of potential jobs may be overly optimistic. Environmental campaigners say fracking will devastate the area. They fear that it could damage aquifers in the Karoo, destroying its ecosystem and threatening agriculture in the area.
The government insists that if it becomes apparent that exploration is harming the Karoo, they will shut it down. The report presented to the cabinet says careful regulation of the disposal of the noxious water produced during fracking would be crucial. But some fear that the lure of energy independence and the prospect of creating jobs in a country where unemployment is currently running at 25% will prove too tempting—no matter how much damage is done in the process.