Environmental activists are concerned that an SCA judgment on Friday may pave the way for fracking across 5 500 farms, a vast tract of nearly two million hectares of arable land in northern KZN. According to a Sunday Times report, the court overturned a Western Cape High Court ruling that interdicted Texas-based Rhino Oil and Gas from moving ahead with aerial exploration on thousands of farms.

Rhino also has pending applications with the Petroleum Association of SA (Pasa) for exploration in the Free State and Eastern Cape. The SCA ruling applies only to exploration in KZN. The firm's bid to conduct geological surveys to find subterranean gas reserves was stopped in 2017 when Normandien Farms, a company which owns several farms that may rest on fuel reserves, challenged technical irregularities in Rhino's application process with Pasa.

The affected landowners, Normandien held, had not been properly consulted.

Normandien claimed that if Rhino was granted a licence to extract gas, it would likely use fracking as it was the easiest method to get access to the underground gas pockets it may find. Normandien attacked Pasa's failure to follow its own rules and regulations, and on a technicality had the process halted, arguing that if the ‘irregular’ process continued the farms might be affected.

However, the SCA  found that the lower court had no basis to stop the application process because Normandien had suffered no prejudice.

It set aside the interdict and dismissed Normandien's application. ‘Normandien has approached the court before any decision has even been taken, and before it had suffered any prejudice on account of the actions complained of,’ the judgment reads.

‘It launched a pre-emptive strike against Rhino. It may perhaps have been best advised to 'husband its powder' in anticipation of the battle that may or may not lie ahead.’

Judy Bell, an environmentalist at lobby group FrackFree SA, described the judgment as a devastating harbinger, notes the Sunday Times report. ‘This is not only about the devastation fracking will cause, but about the wellbeing of the planet entirely,’ she is quoted as saying.

‘Fracking uses massive amounts of water, which is a commodity we don't have in abundant supply. Over and above that the existing supply stands to be polluted by the process.’ Bobby Peek, of groundWork, said the non-profit organisation would oppose any form of fracking.

‘We will always resist this process in whatever way we can. We'll do this by changing public opinion and making sure the public understands fracking is not something we need in terms of the environmental impact and the effect on the health of people on the ground,’ he said.

Environmental activist and writer Bronwyn Howard, of Utrecht in northern KZN, said Rhino had a number of other applications in the province and elsewhere, which included areas of the Drakensberg, Golden Gate Highlands National Park and areas surrounding the Vaal.

‘Whether they use fracking or conventional drilling, there can be a significant impact on the water and in this area, we are part of a catchment area of major rivers in the province. This is a water system that supplies millions of people,’ she said.

Full Sunday Times report (subscription needed)

Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration SA (Pty) Ltd v Normandien Farms (Pty) Ltd & another