Cape Town - The cabinet has endorsed the decision by the mineral resources department to invoke a moratorium on licences in the Karoo Basin where "fracking" is proposed.
"Fracking" is hydraulic fracturing, a technique for extracting shale gas from deep underground by pumping a pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals down drill holes.
The department would lead a multi-disciplinary team, including the trade and industry and science and technology departments, to research the full implications of the proposed fracking, government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi
told a media briefing following cabinet's regular fortnightly meeting.
"Cabinet has made it very clear that (a) clean environment together with all the ecological aspects will not be compromised," he said.
On Wednesday, it emerged that there was little chance that oil giant Shell's plans to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo using the "fracking" method would have an impact on South Africa's bid to host the square kilometre array (SKA) radio telescope.
In written reply to a question in the National Council of Provinces, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said an application for prospecting had no impact on South Africa's bid to host the SKA.
"An application can only have impact if granted," she said.
"If the Shell application is granted, and if Shell uses communication systems with frequency ranges that interfere with radio telescope operations, the prospecting will affect radio astronomy."
However, the South African SKA project office (SASPO) had proactively met with Shell and Golder Associates to indicate communications restrictions.
"All operations in the Karoo will be comprehensively addressed through regulations under the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act 2007, which are expected to be finalised in the 2012/13 financial year, following consideration of the outcomes of the public consultations on the astronomy regulations," Pandor said.
The act gives the sole right to regulate the zone in which the SKA will operate to the minister of science and technology.
South Africa and Australia were shortlisted in 2006 as locations for the SKA project.
The SKA will cost about €2bn to build, and require between €150m and €200m a year, for 50 years, to maintain and operate.
An announcement on who has won the bid will be made early next year.
The endorsement was welcomed by the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG).
"Cabinet clearly realised what other countries have realised - the issue of fracking is too complex to be decided on by one single authority or one single department."
A multi-disciplinary team should look at an issue of this magnitude.
"From our side, we will now make sure we cooperate with and give all the assistance we can to government as they make sure that every aspect of the environmental impact assessment is taken care of," TKAG said.