CAPE TOWN, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Evidence of water contamination would be grounds for South Africa to halt exploration for shale gas in its semi-arid Karoo region, the mines minister said, addressing fears its decision to develop the abundant resource could harm the environment.
South Africa, seeing prospects for a major boost to its economy, last week lifted a ban on shale gas exploration in the Karoo, which contains some of the world’s biggest reserves of the energy source.
The decision aroused criticism from environmentalists who say water supplies will be polluted by the extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, in which pressurised water, chemicals and sand are pumped underground to release gas trapped in shale formations.
The government said in a report released on Tuesday that other concerns included the amount of water required for fracking, as water is scarce in the Karoo.
The sparsely-populated Karoo is renowned for sheep farming and home to rare species such as the mountain zebra and riverine rabbit, placing it firmly in the sight of conservationists.
“If the process is such that there is a threat to water in South Africa we will have to stop the process,” Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu told journalists on Tuesday.
The government report said hydrological studies would be conducted to minimise potential impacts on other users.
The studies would also examine whether fracking would cause excessive dust that could disable the “Square Kilometre Array” (SKA) telescope, which will be located in the same area.
South Africa in May won the rights to host the $2 billion radio telescope, the world’s biggest, along with Australia and New Zealand.
“If there is going to be a negative impact on the SKA which cannot be mitigated, we may have to halt the process,” Shabangu said.
According to an initial study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, South Africa has 485 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of technically recoverable shale gas resources, most of which are located in the Karoo Basin. (Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Agnieszka Flak and Anthony Barker)