South Africa releases draft shale gas regulations

CAPE TOWN, July 14 (Reuters) - South Africa has released new draft rules for public comment for onshore shale gas fracking, four years after the Supreme Court of Appeal set aside regulations governing hydraulic fracturing in the ecologically sensitive Karoo region.

The proposed regulations and minimum requirements apply to the exploration and production of onshore oil and gas that requires hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, a process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers by creating cracks to allow the gas to escape.

A decade ago, the Karoo sparked intense interest from companies including Shell, Sasol and Falcon Oil & Gas, but farmers and environmentalists went to court to challenge any drilling in the vast semi-arid region, which saw enthusiasm wane amid regulatory uncertainty.

Last year, the minister of energy told lawmakers that South Africa’s Council for Geosciences had hit pockets of shale gas as part of ongoing tests in the region.

“The regulations identify prohibited activities and prohibited geographic areas for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology, which include the use of potable water for hydraulic fracturing activities and the use of municipal water treatment facilities for the disposal of wastes from hydraulic fracturing operations,” said the department of fisheries, forestry and environment.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the department said an environmental authorization was required for each phase of the process, including seismic surveys without fracking and the production phase.

Suffering some of its worst power cuts since it started in 2007, South Africa wants to diversify its energy mix away from ageing coal-fired power plants prone to breakdowns and help reduce harmful emissions from the continent’s top polluter.

In 2017, geologists at the University of Johannesburg and three other institutions estimated the gas resource in the Karoo was probably 13 trillion cubic feet (tcf), the bottom of a range of estimates that had put deposits between 13 tcf to 390 tcf. (Reporting by Wendell Roelf Editing by Bhargav Acharya and Mark Potter)