A PORT Elizabeth professor has defied threats and come out in support of shale-gas exploration in the Karoo – sparking rumbles of dissent at the "great fracking debate" in Beaufort West.
Maarten de Wit, of NMMU, made the controversial statement despite being criticised and receiving threatening e-mails before the conference.
He was the only debater to back shale-gas exploration – the five other speakers gave it a resounding "no".
A majority of the floor also disagreed with De Wit and made their views on fracking – or hydraulic fracturing – quite clear.
A Beaufort West farmer even threatened to "deal" with any neighbours who sold out to the government or Shell, which is spearheading fracking in the Karoo.
Fracking is a mining technique in which water laced with chemicals is driven deep into the earth at great pressure to rupture shale rock and release tightly bound gas.
The issue reached boiling point when the moratorium halting the controversial shale-gas exploration bids in the Karoo was lifted by the government in September.
De Wit initially withdrew from the debate after taking the podium, but then chose to continue. He said derogatory e-mails filled with "bad language" that "bad-mouthed" him and other people had been sent to his office.
He said he feared for the safety of his students. De Wit and his students often do work in the Karoo. During the debate, De Wit said: "I would be very happy to go ahead with exploration. That way we can find out if we do have the resources required for shale-gas removal."
De Wit is a distinguished earth scientist. His research interests span geo-dynamics, tectonics and stratigraphy. He was debating shale-gas exploration at the Second Karoo Development Conference.
According to De Wit, it would take five to 10 years to conduct shale-gas exploration in the Karoo and by that time "waterless fracking" might be in use around the world.
"We can't make the decision to start fracking until we know what is there."
He said there was no scientific data on what was below ground level in the Karoo. "We will be able to [get] images 10km below the surface. It will be a pioneering endeavour and a quantum leap in understanding the Karoo.
"We must see this [shale-gas exploration] as an investment. It will offer a new perspective, and if the gas exists, we can then ask 'can we take it out'."
Panellist the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Christy Bragg said shale-gas exploration would scar the Karoo.
"Noise pollution, soil erosion and road kills of endangered species will increase."
Bragg said with the level of risks involved, exploration should be halted.
"We are fast approaching a point of no return but still missing the bigger picture," she warned.
Treasure Karoo Action Group's Jonathan Deal said successful exploration would lead to full-scale production. "Why take the chance? Can anyone imagine our government sending Shell home if they discover shale-gas deposits?"
He said a carrot was being dangled in front of job and prosperity seekers.
"Prosperity today means nothing if it undermines the prosperity that tomorrow depends on," he said.
Deal said the fracking debate was backed by a desperate government.
Another debater, Graaff-Reinet farmer Dougie Stern, said: "Many mistakes are being made worldwide with fracking and the new technique has only been around for about 10 years."
He said the government had a poor track record in regulating the mining sector and the latest acid drainage mining scandal was an example.
According to an Econometrix report, successful exploration of shale gas could deliver 700000 possible jobs, increase government revenue and give South Africa energy security for decades to come.
The report was delivered by Econometrix managing director Rob Jeffrey during an afternoon session.
But University of Cape Town research associate David Figg said the figures were "thumb-sucked". "There is no proof to back these figures up."
Figg also said the moratorium should never have been lifted. "We don't know enough about fracking to have already reached this stage."