SO WHERE is the water going to come from? That is the million-dollar question that has emerged following the announcement that a clutch of local and overseas petroleum heavyweights have been granted research permits to look for gas in the Karoo.

Petroleum Agency SA chief executive Mthozami Xiphu confirmed that three 12-month technical co-operation permits (TCPs) had been granted by the agency – to multinational Falcon Oil (headquartered in the US and Hungary), Dutch giant Shell and a partnership between Statoil (Norway), Chesapeake (US) and Sasol. The permits apply to several provinces but include a swathe of the Eastern Cape Karoo.

News that the permits have been granted has sent a frisson of tension through Karoo conservation circles, because it comes in the wake of the lengthy battle fought last year between Samara Private Game Reserve and Bundu Gas & Oil.

The gas exploration permit for which Bundu applied would have included activity and envisaged possible future drilling on the reserve, south-east of Graaff-Reinet.

Supported by SANParks and regional tourism and economic planners, the reserve opposed the Bundu application questioning, among other reasons, where the water would come from.

The Herald put this question to Bundu at the time, but received no response. The company also declined to say what method it would use to extract the gas if it was found in viable quantities. But Bundu reports at the time referred to “increased success in the US in extracting shale gas” – and a figure of 5000l of water a day needed for drilling.

Xiphu said in response to questions about the status of the Bundu application that it had been “refused, because of failure to comply with environmental legislation”.

However, a glance at the agency’s on-line petroleum exploration activities map shows that Bundu and its proposed site in the Samara area still in place.

And Graaff-Reinet attorney Derek Light, who represented Samara, said he had heard that Bundu had “reapplied”.

“Another client, not Samara, has just communicated to me that it has received a letter from Bundu saying they have had a revised gas exploration application accepted by the agency.” The client, whom Light cannot name as he has not yet been fully briefed, has now been invited to a public participation meeting in Pearston next month.

Light said had not yet seen the application, so was not sure how it was different from Bundu’s initial unsuccessful one.

It was also not yet clear how the Bundu reapplication dovetailed with the news about Shell and Sasol, he said. “One of the broad concerns in this regard is small companies obtaining rights knowing they lack the capacity to use them, then selling them on to multinationals, with dubious benefits for local people.”

Samara general manager Peter Binney has confirmed receipt of documents, apparently from Bundu, and said he would pass them on to the reserve’s owners for their consideration.

Upping the ante is the technique of hydraulic fracturing which the TCP applicants have announced they will use if gas is found accessible in sufficient quantities.

Bundu could not be reached for comment, but it seems clear now that this is the same technology it is envisaging.

Developed in the US, “fracking” involves pumping liquid into the ground to pressure- fracture the shale rock and release “tightly bound gas”.

Following several incidents in the US in which wells have been contaminated apparently either by the uncontrolled migration of gas following fracking, or by the additives used in the water injection process, the government has ordered a comprehensive health and environmental safety probe. The report is expected only in 2012.

NMMU geologist Prof Peter Booth said yesterday underground water was a widespread characteristic and important feature of the arid Karoo. “If these companies got to the stage of drilling, it would be pretty hard to avoid them.”

By Guy Rogers. The Herald Newspaper Port Elizabeth