Pretoria - South Africa should allow exploratory drilling for gas while investigations into the effect on the environment continue, the National Planning Commission (NPC) said on Friday.
“If gas reserves are proven and environmental concerns alleviated, then development of these resources and gas-to-power projects will be fast-tracked,” according to the NPC's national development plan.
Exploratory drilling in areas like the Karoo should be allowed to determine whether there are economically viable shale gas reserves.
“Substituting gas for coal will help cut South Africa's carbon intensity and greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the plan.
Tapping methane gas trapped in coal seams, shale gas in the Karoo basin and importing liquefied natural gas should all be considered.
The NPC said according to the United States Energy Information Administration, technically recoverable shale gas resources in South Africa form the fifth-largest reserve globally.
“Shale gas has the potential to contribute a very large proportion of South Africa's electricity needs,” according to the plan.
Exploratory drilling for gas is a contentious issue. Royal Dutch Shell and other companies have applied to the department of mineral resources to explore for shale gas in the Karoo basin using the controversial mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking".
Environmental groups claim it will harm the sensitive Karoo environment and poison underground water supplies.
Shell SA argues South Africa could become "energy self-sufficient" within a decade if commercially viable gas volumes are discovered in the Karoo. This would drive foreign investments, reduce carbon emissions, and create thousands of jobs.
In August, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu extended a moratorium on applications for licences to prospect for shale gas using fracking for a further six months. Her department set up a task team in April to investigate the impact of mining for shale gas in the Karoo.
The plan was handed to President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria on Friday for consideration.
The NPC is an advisory body. Only cabinet can decide whether to adopt its proposals and in what form.