Johannesburg - There will be no hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo, for now at least.
Only "normal" geological exploration will be allowed, the government's multi-disciplinary task team said in a report, the executive summary of which was released by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu in Cape Town on Tuesday,
"Allow normal exploration (excluding the actual hydraulic fracturing), such as geological field-mapping and other data-gathering activities, eg hydrological studies, to proceed under the existing regulatory framework," the document recommends.
The report was endorsed by Cabinet last week.
The task team was established by Shabangu last year, after she declared a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in April.
The minister told journalists on Tuesday that some drilling would be involved in the exploration process, but not hydraulic fracturing, commonly know as fracking.
"We're talking about the initial process. Drilling will happen... but what we've agreed at Cabinet is that the actual [hydraulic] fracturing... cannot be done now. Dealing with fracturing will come later."
Drilling was necessary to establish the size and potential of the shale gas reserve, she said.
It is understood that other exploration methods will include seismic reflection, involving explosives and recording devices.
Responding to a question after the briefing, mineral resources director general Thibedi Ramontja confirmed that the exploration drilling was for the purpose of obtaining core samples only, and there would be no fracking at all during this phase.
Shabangu said five companies applied in 2010 to explore for shale gas in the Karoo. She undertook to confirm their names later in the week.
Oil giant Shell, which has welcomed the lifting of the moratorium on shale gas exploration, is among the five.
According to the report's executive summary, there is an estimated "technically recoverable" 485 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Karoo Basin.
The team said an extended ban on hydraulic fracturing would equal a lost economic opportunity.
"While considering the implications of hydraulic fracturing, it is important to note that the effect of an extended ban, moratorium or stringent regulation can best be described as a reduction of economic opportunity.
"Such measures would delay or prevent an improvement of the understanding of the real extent of the potential resource... and remove the potential economic benefit to severely deprived communities in the Karoo."
Among the document's recommendations is that a monitoring committee be established, ahead of the exploration starting, to "ensure comprehensive and co-ordinated augmentation of the regulatory framework and supervision of operations".
It further calls for the current regulatory framework to be augmented.
"The establishment of the appropriate regulations, controls and co-ordination systems is expected to take six to 12 months."
Once this was done, it recommends authorising hydraulic fracturing "under the strict supervision of the monitoring committee".
In the event of any unacceptable outcomes, fracking should be halted.