Unconventional Oil and Gas in South Africa: Science, Technology and Policy

Jack Hemingway, Development and Humanitarianism in an Unequal World, Lancaster University, 2018 cohort

South Africa is seeing an increased interest in the exploitation of its extensive shale gas and coal seam gas reserves. These developments could fundamentally alter the South African energy landscape and are potentially of enormous economic benefit to the country. The promise of jobs, cheaper and (potentially) cleaner fuel, and a massive GDP boost are particularly attractive to South Africa, with its ongoing energy and unemployment crises. But, as in other countries, the exploitation of unconventional oil and gas (UOG), particularly by hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), is proving controversial.

Embedded in the promises of economic growth, energy security, and job creation are several scientific uncertainties. Notable among these are the volumes of gas and oil that are recoverable, and the environmental risks associated with their extraction. As well as the scientific uncertainties, there are also significant public movements, both environmental and industrial, against the development of the UOG industry restricting its social licence to operate. It is the relationship between these factors that is the focus of my research: how scientific knowledge influences policymakers, informs stakeholder opinion, and how in turn these influence the uptake of different means of energy production.

To approach the problem of how to study UOG policy, I propose to use groundwater science and groundwater governance as a lens through which to observe these socio-technical processes. Groundwater is a common-pool resource, so any water either abstracted in the dewatering processes involved with coal seam gas extraction, or in the hydraulic fracturing process, is drawing on a communal source, so without being recycled it cannot be used for other purposes. Moreover, if groundwater quality is degraded by these activities, it can have potentially catastrophic consequences for other water users. These factors make groundwater an ideal focus for the study, particularly given the water-scarce nature of the South African regions that have been identified for UOG exploration. By focussing on groundwater, its uses, and its protection, I hope to highlight how scientific and technological understanding is used to create vastly different “realities”, leading to a wide range of stakeholder-opinions, government policies, and investment strategies, which in turn affect the adoption or rejection of new technologies and methods of energy production.

I intend to use a combination of methods to achieve the objectives of the research. I am currently working with my CASE partners at the British Geological Survey (BGS) to explore how groundwater science and groundwater governance has informed the fracking debate in the UK. I am then going to use what has been learned as the background for the overseas fieldwork, which will be a combination of semi-structured interviews along with a partially ethnographic research approach, embedding myself in the field in South Africa and engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, such as water-users, geological surveys, energy companies, academics, and where possible, policy-makers. The research will be drawing on STS methods to provide a framework for the research. By using this combination of approaches, I hope to be able to collect some rich data, and to produce a unique archive documenting the environmentally and geopolitically significant events as they unfold in South Africa.

Researching energy production in South Africa has proved to be an interesting process, regularly challenging my preconceptions about what good governance is, and also highlighting what challenges are faced by countries such as South Africa if they are to achieve their climate commitments. South Africa has coal in its DNA, it is the world’s seventh largest coal producer, and its current President Cyril Ramaphosa founded what is now the largest and most powerful trade union in South Africa, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which successfully challenged the racist employment practices of the apartheid government. The NUM’s 300,000 strong membership view the transition away from coal as not only a threat to their livelihoods, but also as a means of moving energy production away from state ownership and into the private sector. This double-barrelled objection to transitioning away from coal highlights just a small part of the complexity of energy production in South Africa, and is an example of how energy production is more than just an economic or environmental issue as it has come to be framed in recent years in the United Kingdom. There are the other burning questions: is fracking for shale gas better than burning coal? What are the priorities?  The economy? The environment? Communities? And what are the trade-offs? Can South Africa successfully move away from coal without harming the workers and communities that depend on it? Is a Just Transition possible?

This leads on to the other more personal challenges I have faced during the course of my research. How does my position as a white, British researcher working in South Africa influence the questions that I ask, and more importantly, how does it affect the interpretations of the answers I receive? Originally I regarded green energy transitions as just being about moving to a more sustainable means of energy production, but my research has led me to some very different conclusions: that energy production is inextricably linked to identity and politics, ownership and community: ideas that still resonate with some communities in the UK to this day.

Studying policy in South Africa is inevitably going be challenging. When I walked through the turnstile marked “WHITES” at the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, I thought I had a reasonable grasp on the country’s history and politics: when I emerged 3 hours later it was pretty clear that this was not the case, and now the more I read, the more clear that realisation becomes. It is a privilege to be able to do my research on such an interesting set of topics, in such a fascinating and beautiful country, and although it is unlikely that any of the questions I am looking at will be even close to being fully resolved by the end of my research, I certainly intend to relish the process.

Jack Hemingway: j.hemingway@lancaster.ac.uk

One Comment on “Unconventional Oil and Gas in South Africa: Science, Technology and Policy

  1. We had similar exp at Mandela museum except Idrew the black card!
    You need to be culturally aware and employ native translator/guide .
    Shame you didnt go to Malawi …..


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