Let's err on side of caution around fracking process
Other than glib promises about job creation, we have heard very little about the social consequences of starting a fracking industry in South Africa.
The US has had a head start on fracking, and the impact of the industry on the rural charm of states such as Wyoming has been devastating.
Alexandra Fuller has written an achingly beautiful biography of a young man who earned his living on the fracking rigs in 2008 as The Legend of Colton H Bryant.
Colton's story unfolds against the backdrop of how the chase for profits left ghost towns in wasted landscapes and eroded basic safety standards with devastating consequences. Despite Colton's brave exhortation to "cowboy up" and put up with the hardships, his life came to an early and tragic end in an oil rig accident. Read the book and you get a picture of what a fracked Karoo will look like.
Fuller's book describes the alien character of the rigs spread across the landscape, and the process of fracturing rock kilometres underground. Seismic tests have shown multiple minor tremors within a 24-hour period after hydraulic fracturing operations.
Of course, this will be old news to Gautengers, used to frequent tremors from the extensive mining systems on the Reef. But the danger is that tremors damage the concrete casings surrounding well shafts, which can result in gas leaks or seepage of fracking chemicals.
Shell, the company which has applied for a licence to explore the Karoo for shale gas, said it has the experience to deal with this, but the evidence is not so clear.
The plains of Wyoming are where an American Environmental Protection Agency study found chemicals such as benzene and tert-butyl alcohol in the groundwater around a shale gas well.
Three other sites investigated by the University of Texas did not find any evidence of groundwater contamination, but the balance of evidence seems to justify more extensive investigation.
There is a well-established environmental approach to dealing with new and under-researched technologies like fracking - the precautionary principle.
When dealing with new developments which affect finite environmental resources such as water supplies, we should err on the side of caution.
We should only deploy new technology when we have clear scientific evidence of the risks and benefits involved. Most scientists said they cannot draw firm conclusions about the long-term effects of the fracking process.
The government, as the ultimate arbiter and decision-maker on this issue, has not inspired confidence that a balanced consideration of the issue has been undertaken, and its track record raises legitimate fears about the dodgy deals that extractive industries tend to spawn.
The Department of Energy is running a black box investigation without public participation or transparency on the terms of reference or on how the gas exploration is being done.
The Department of Environmental Affairs has said "exploration could continue if a risk-averse approach has been followed", but how much independent scrutiny has been applied to methods involved?
Our regulators should be cautious about proceeding with this. At the very least a thorough fact-based Strategic Environmental Assessment with open and transparent stakeholder engagement should be completed before a decision is made. This will ensure that the available evidence is looked at in an objective and open manner and help reassure a sceptical public that due diligence has been performed.