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Fracking for shale gas in South Africa: blessing or curse?
6 December 2013

As the first country to reverse a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing – more commonly known as ‘fracking’ – South Africa is now poised to move forward with the controversial process, exploring what experts believe to be the eighth largest shale gas reserve in the world. For a country that is almost wholly dependent on coal production, shale gas development could be a game-changer. Yet, the possible environmental impacts could also be devastating.

Despite the government’s current plans for exploration, many environmental groups still hold on to the hope that a fracking-free status quo may continue. We explore this possibility in our Base Case scenario, which offers the most promise for preserving the water and natural resources of the Karoo, but the least potential for the country’s economy. Our alternative Shale Boom scenario allows for shale gas development and could significantly boost economic growth, reduce poverty and provide more resources for spending on education, health and infrastructure. Yet, with these gains come steep costs. Widespread fracking could lead to significant water contamination, destruction of natural habitats, increases in earthquakes and no long-term reduction in carbon emissions.

Is there a way to harness the positive power of fracking, reduce its negative impact and move towards a greener future? Our Blue Bridge scenario levies a small tax on fracking that is then invested in renewable energy infrastructure and production. In this scenario, strong economic growth drives reductions in poverty and increased spending on education, health and infrastructure. It also moves South Africa to a renewable energy- based economy, lowering shale production relative to the Shale Boom, reducing carbon emissions, producing more overall energy and damaging fewer natural resources in the long term.

This series:

This paper is the third in a three-part series, the goal of which is to test the central planning assumptions that inform South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) 2030. The first paper in the series analysed the feasibility of the NDP’s economic growth rate targets and explored some of the associated human development targets. The second paper explored reasonable population scenarios for South Africa at the national and provincial levels to 2030 by analysing trends in fertility, mortality and migration. This paper examines the implications of exploring and developing South Africa’s shale gas reserves in light of emerging global energy technologies, namely hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

About the authors:

Steve Hedden is a Research Assistant at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures and an M.A. Candidate in International Development at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Dr Jonathan D. Moyer is the Associate Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Jessica Rettig is a Research Assistant at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures and an M.A. Candidate in Global Finance, Trade, and Economic Integration at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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Project funding thanks to: The Hanns Seidel Foundation, South Africa. The ISS is also grateful for the support of the following core partners: the governments of Norway, Sweden, Australia and Denmark.