Cape Town - There seems to be little chance that oil giant Shell's plans to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo Basin using the "fracking" method will have an impact on South Africa's bid to host the square kilometre array (SKA) radio telescope.
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said this in a written reply to the National Council of Provinces.
"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.Fracking questions
"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.
About a month ago, science and technology deputy director general Val Munsami told the National Assembly's science and technology committee that Shell's plans were starting to raise questions among international partners.
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.
Munsami told the committee the department was looking at the implications of the oil company going ahead with its exploration for shale gas.
"One key piece of legislation we have in place is the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (AGAA), which regulates the area in terms of radio interference," he said.
"Obviously we will be looking at whether, in terms of exploration, there is any radio interference. If there is, we will have to have that discussion in terms of the regulatory framework."Interdepartmental talks
A management authority was being put in place within the department to deal with the matter, and "to ensure regulations are fulfilled in terms of protecting the SKA".
There was also "ongoing" discussion between his department and the department of energy on the matter, Munsami said.
Committee chairperson Nqaba Ngcobo noted the AGAA gave the sole right to regulate the zone in which the SKA would operate to the minister of science and technology.
"So I think that's not a problem... There is no way Shell can go ahead with that; the act does not allow it. It can't," he said.