Digging Deep for Answers on Fracking

Article excerpt

When the cabinet first referred to the moratorium and the related task team, the official statement was unequivocal - the task team would be appointed to "research the full implications of the proposed fracking."

The cabinet stated further it had "made it very clear that a clean environment together with all the ecological aspects will not be compromised (by hydraulic fracturing)". Add to these statements the fact that the various international moratoria and bans on hydraulic fracturing have come into being as a result of environmental and public health concerns, and it is safe to say that the public had an entirely reasonable expectation these concerns would form an integral part of the task team's research.

In fact, when it comes to environmental concerns, there can be no doubt that the cabinet had expected the task team to pay specific attention thereto.

To this end, Minister Dipuo Peters of the Department of Energy has stated that, "(w)hen it was said that (hydraulic fracturing) has very serious environmental implications, then we as a cabinet took the decision to put in place a moratorium until we got the answers to that".

Will the task team produce the answers that the cabinet has instructed them to seek? Based on the replies of Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu in Parliament, the answer to this question is unfortunately no.

The task team has apparently been conducting its research without the expertise of, among others, the Department of Water Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the Department of Environmental Affairs. Nevertheless, according to Shabangu, the team has been empowered to determine, not only the termination date of the moratorium, but also "the terms upon which applications and proposed operations shall be assessed".

Arguably, the members of the task team that have been identified by Shabangu are not suitably qualified to comment on, among other things, the environmental and public health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.

How then can it be reasonable for them to be granted the power to determine the terms upon which the relevant applications and operations be assessed?

The task team has been given powers that require its members to act beyond the scope of their expertise. By way of example, it is perhaps trite to state that concerns regarding water go to the very heart of the debate on hydraulic fracturing. However, for that very reason, it is alarming that the task team has failed to enlist the assistance of the Department of Water Affairs.

Arguably, those who were responsible for determining the membership of the task team have failed to act in accordance with a material aspect of the cabinet's instructions. They have ignored its unambiguous instruction to look at the "full implications of the proposed fracking".

It appears that the persons responsible for the management of the task team have acted irrationally and it is thus unsurprising that allegations of bias in favour of the introduction of hydraulic fracturing have been levelled against the task team.

In the interests of conducting research in line with the wishes of the cabinet and the public, the task team ought to have enlisted the help of persons skilled in fields such as environmental science.

By choosing not to enlist the help of such persons it will now be difficult for the Department of Mineral Resources ("the DMR") and those in charge of the task team to explain why they ignored the wishes of the cabinet and the public.

Another particularly difficult task for the DMR and for those persons who are responsible for managing the task team will be for them to explain what can best be described as their closed-door policy.

Since the announcement of the moratorium, various interested and affected parties have repeatedly written to the minister calling on her to clarify the precise nature of the moratorium and the task team. …