Fracking  protests. Picture: THE TIMES/ SHELLEY CHRISTIANS
File image of fracking protests. Picture: THE TIMES/ SHELLEY CHRISTIANS

THE government may revise its rules for companies wanting to explore for shale gas in the Karoo basin once its strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is completed, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said on Tuesday.

Final regulations for shale gas exploration are expected to be gazetted in June.

Ms Molewa said the exploration licences granted to companies would yield important information about the extent of shale gas resources in SA, which would inform the assessment. The assessment in turn might affect future rules for companies operating in this industry, she said.

"We will use this SEA to reinforce and strengthen aspects of the regulations if need be," she told reporters at a briefing to launch the strategic environmental assessment.

The assessment is expected to take two years, and will be led by Bob Scholes, Wits University ecology Professor. He is a world-renowned scientist, and is among the co-authors of a report compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.

"It aims to provide the country with the evidence it needs to make sensible decisions round the exploitation of shale gas," said Prof Scholes.

The assessment is expected to cost R12.5m and will involve the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, and the Council for Geoscience.

Prof Scholes said a wide range of stakeholders were to be included in the work, from those staunchly opposed to extracting shale gas by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to those who strongly supported it.

The study area would cover the core of the Karoo, spanning an area of more than 125,000km², and would consider the entire lifecycle of shale gas exploitation, from the initial exploratory drilling to final rehabilitation of sites, he said.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said she would ensure that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project in the Karoo would be protected from shale gas exploration and the possible exploitation of the resource. A 25km buffer zone had been declared around the SKA site, which lay 90km from Carnarvon, she said.

Deputy Energy Minister Thembisile Majola said shale gas had the potential to be a "game-changer’ for SA.