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Developing and enforcing fracking regulations to protect groundwater resources



Unconventional oil and gas (UOG) extraction can augment energy supplies in countries with viable gas resources, but it risks damaging water resources. Water supply problems for fracking can also limit UOG extraction, especially in water-stressed regions. Regulations are one of the main tools used to minimize UOG extraction impacts on water resources. Many states in the US and Canada have extensive regulations to protect water resources during UOG extraction but they are often ineffective, either because they were poorly drafted or because they are not properly enforced. South Africa is a water-scarce, groundwater-dependent country that is considering UOG extraction in the future. South African groundwater experts were surveyed on what regulations are needed to protect groundwater resources and how to enforce them. This study recommends specific UOG extraction regulations to protect groundwater resources, which are not only relevant to South Africa, but also to other countries that extract UOG resources.
Developing and enforcing fracking regulations to protect
groundwater resources
S. Esterhuyse
, D. Vermeulen
and J. Glazewski
Unconventional oil and gas (UOG) extraction can augment energy supplies in countries with viable gas resources, but it risks
damaging water resources. Water supply problems for fracking can also limit UOG extraction, especially in water-stressed regions.
Regulations are one of the main tools used to minimize UOG extraction impacts on water resources. Many states in the US and
Canada have extensive regulations to protect water resources during UOG extraction but they are often ineffective, either because
they were poorly drafted or because they are not properly enforced. South Africa is a water-scarce, groundwater-dependent
country that is considering UOG extraction in the future. South African groundwater experts were surveyed on what regulations are
needed to protect groundwater resources and how to enforce them. This study recommends specic UOG extraction regulations to
protect groundwater resources, which are not only relevant to South Africa, but also to other countries that extract UOG resources.
npj Clean Water (2022) 5:3 ;
Unconventional oil and gas (UOG) extraction using hydraulic
fracturing (fracking) in shale areas could alleviate country energy
shortages. Fracking however poses serious environmental risks,
particularly to water resources
. Problems in obtaining water for
fracking are also curtailing the development of UOG industries,
especially in water-stressed regions
. About 31% of shale areas
worldwide are water-stressed, dened as areas where human
consumptive water demand already exceeds the availability of
local renewable blue water(surface water and groundwater)
Depending on the expansion of UOG extraction, as much as 44%
of future UOG extraction areas could be water-stressed. Current
water-stressed areas include the south-central United States,
Canada, Argentina, South Africa, North Africa, China, India, and
. In such regions, fracking could use more than 50% of
the regional water resources during complete UOG extraction,
which could aggravate competition for water, or even place
unsustainable pressure on the water resources
Regulations are vital for minimizing damage to water resources
during UOG extraction. Many states in the US and Canada, where
UOG resources have been extracted the longest, have extensive
regulations to protect water resources. These regulations are
however often a patchworkwith some being specic and
prescriptive, and others vague and general
. It is, therefore,
crucial to develop and enforce suitable regulations to protect
water resources.
Our in-depth study assessed different UOG extraction regulations
for South Africa, a seriously water-constrained, groundwater-
dependent country that is considering UOG extraction in the
future. We also assessed how such regulations could be effectively
enforced. The recommendations from this study could also be
useful to other countries where UOG resources are being extracted.
South Africaa water-stressed country planning to extract
UOG resources
South Africa relies on coal for 90% of its electricity needs
. These
coal resources are being depleted and South Africa is in dire need
of additional energy, having suffered rolling blackouts since
. Extracting UOG resources in South Africas Karoo Basin is
one of the options being considered. While the continued
extraction of fossil fuels such as coal, or indeed UOG, is
questionable given the state of climate change
, UOG may serve
as a transition fuel to cleaner energy
. South Africa is however
water-scarce, as illustrated by the 20162018 Cape Town drought
. Figure 1shows relevant water-related features and studies
that were done in the Karoo Basin. A 2016 strategic environmental
assessment (SEA) on shale gas extraction in the Karoo basin shale
gas target area, identied water supply for fracking as one of the
main factors limiting the UOG industrys development
regional baseline groundwater monitoring network, recom-
mended by the SEA, is currently being developed for this area.
Communities in the Karoo Basin, with its very low annual rainfall
and limited perennial rivers, depend heavily on groundwater. The
Karoo basins dolerite dykes and sills, which cover most of the
basin, are its main water provisioning features, but can also act as
pollution pathways for contaminants that inltrate from the
surface and that may migrate from deep to shallow aquifers
during UOG extraction
. Saline artesian aquifers, postulated to
occur in the southern part of the Karoo, where artesian ows have
been encountered in deep Soekor wells at depths exceeding
4000 m
, also present a contamination risk. These regional
artesian aquifer conditions occur south of the southern limit of
the dolerite intrusions, with the Great Escarpment marking the
northern limit of this deep artesian ow. Rocks of the Cape
Supergroup that underlies the area south of the Great Escarpment
are under sufcient hydrostatic and lithostatic pressure to allow
deep groundwater to reach the surface. The Karoos groundwater
is vital for agriculture and for household use, so the specic
vulnerabilities of the Karoo aquifers are a matter of concern
Fracking is contentious in South Africa and has been met with
public resistance
. The rst permit applications for UOG
extraction in South Africa were submitted in 2011, yet proper
regulations to protect water resources must still be drafted. The
only fracking-specic regulations released by the South African
Centre for Environmental Management, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Institute for Groundwater Studies, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein,
South Africa.
Institute for Marine and Environmental Law, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. email:
Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals
Fig. 1 Water-related features of South Africas Karoo Basin. Plan view map showing South Africas Karoo Basin, important study areas (the
shale gas SEA study area and the Regional baseline groundwater monitoring network), important geological features (the Karoo dolerite
intrusions, the Southern limit of the dolerite intrusions and the Northern limit of the Cape Basin), and important topographical features (the
Great Escarpment). The map also shows areas of high domestic groundwater dependence (covering most of the Karoo Basin shale gas target
area) and the postulated artesian groundwater zone within the shale gas SEA study area. A simplied geological cross-section (A-B) of the
Karoo Main Basin is presented below the map.
S. Esterhuyse et al.
npj Clean Water (2022) 3 Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals
Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) in 2015, were challenged
in court. They were invalidated in 2019 by the South African
Supreme Court of Appeal, because the DMR did not have the
mandate to draft water regulations
, and because they failed to
sufciently protect water resources
Regulations to protect groundwater during UOG extraction
We asked 20 South African groundwater experts their opinions on
the importance and enforceability of regulations that we
proposed for protecting groundwater resources during UOG
extraction. We grouped the regulations according to eight
regulatory areas: baseline monitoring, management plans, margin
of safety regulations, prohibitory precautionary regulations,
monitoring and reporting of resources and processes, best
applicable technologies and processes, public information dis-
closure, and well decommissioning. These are discussed below
(see Fig. 2). The supplementary materials provide detailed
information on responses per regulatory area (Supplementary
Figs. 1 to 8). Additional regulatory suggestions made by
respondents can be seen in Supplementary Table 1.
Baseline monitoring. provides water resource information
before oil and gas extraction starts and must consider the
appropriate density of monitoring points, frequency of monitor-
ing, and time periods
existing water uses during water resources allocation for
extraction, while baseline water quality information alert
regulators to contamination events and can be used to
determine rehabilitation targets
. Baselines are indispensable
for establishing a legal basis for proving contamination,
identifying the party responsible for the contamination, or for
a company to refute a contamination claim
viewed the monitoring of groundwater quality, groundwater
availability for fracking, and baseline mapping of geological
structures as important. Most respondents viewed seismicity
mapping, earthquake zone mapping, and the prediction of
future seismicity linked to underground wastewater injection
(UWI) (if allowed by South Africa) as important. The monitoring
of baseline groundwater quality, groundwater availability for
fracking, and baseline mapping of geological structures were
viewed as the easiest regulations to enforce, and seismicity
mapping as the most difcult. Four respondents doubted
whether the South African regulator can enforce baseline
monitoring regulations, because of insufcient funding, lack of
expertise, weak institutions, absence of legislation and regula-
tions, lack of political will, and corruption.
Management plans. are common command-and-control regula-
tory tools to obtain data on the fracking process
. All
respondents considered it important to have plans for waste
management, well decommissioning, and specication of water
sources for fracking in place before proceeding with UOG
extraction. Most respondents considered a drilling management
plan and a hydraulic fracturing management plan important for
minimizing damage to groundwater, but only 60% thought a
hydraulic fracturing management plan to minimize seismic activity
was important. One respondent stated that drilling contractors
protocols should be reviewed under a protocol management plan,
while 10% of respondents supported the review of management
plans by an independent transparent expert panel and its
implementation in consultation with all relevant stakeholders.
Only the waste management plan and the plan specifying sources
of water for fracking was considered relatively easy to enforce.
According to 20% of respondents, a shortage of government
human resources and nancial capacity would hamper enforce-
ment in South Africa.
Margin of safety regulations. intend to limit groundwater
contamination and ensure proper groundwater use during UOG
extraction. They commonly specify well spacing and density,
water quality discharge standards, environmental critical level
limits, and discharge volume limits
. Minimum distances (set-
backs) can also be specied between fracking operations and
sensitive geological structures, aquifers, and earthquake-prone
. All respondents viewed regulations for limiting negative
groundwater impacts from waste or wastewater as important.
Waste-related margin of safety regulations included wastewater
release discharge standards and setback distances between waste
management operations and sensitive aquifers, aquifer recharge
areas, and geological structures. Only 60% of respondents viewed
the regulation of well spacing density as important Well spacing
density regulations and wastewater release discharge standards
were considered as the easiest to enforce, and setbacks between
waste management operations and aquifer recharge areas and
between production wells and geological structures as the most
difcult. Regulations on minimum setback distances between
fracking wells and ancillary activities and groundwater features
were also assessed, specically for South African groundwater
conditions (see Supplementary Table 2). Respondents had to
indicate whether they agreed with the proposed minimum
setback distances. Alternative setback distances or protection
approaches could be proposed where respondents did not agree
with the minimum setback distances. Most respondents proposed
much more stringent setbacks, for example between town water
supply and production wells. Respondents proposed a minimum
setback distance of 10 km both between town water supply
boreholes and UOG production wells and between towns and any
future production wells. Groundwater is very important in South
. An estimated 45.5% of the countrys surface area is more
than 50% dependent on groundwater supply for domestic
. Twenty percent of respondents stated that setbacks
should be calculated on a risk-based case-by-case basis according
to local geological and hydrogeological conditions at each site,
allowing for more lenient setbacks, but also a tougher approach in
high-risk cases. The setbacks that we tested were all horizontal
distances. One respondent, however, proposed a vertical restric-
tion for fracking in South Africa specicallyno fracking in target
shale formations less than 1000 m deep, and that fracking only be
allowed in shale formations less than 1500 m deep, if a
comprehensive hydrogeological conceptual model has been
Prohibitory precautionary regulations. prohibit UOG operators
from executing certain activities during UOG extraction, to protect
groundwater resources
. Respondents viewed prohibiting the
use of harmful, toxic, or carcinogenic chemicals as the most
important regulation, but one that is difcult to enforce. Here
regulators could follow the precautionary approach and require
companies to prove the safety of their chemicals before use
ensuring more transparency in the fracking industry and
encouraging the development of safe fracking chemicals
Prohibiting UWI and fracking in sensitive aquifers were also
viewed as very important. Even though UWI is commonly
practiced in the US
, UWI is a particular concern in South Africa
because the country relies on groundwater and because possible
shallow-deep aquifer connectivity can cause fracking uid and
contaminant migration to freshwater aquifers.
Monitoring and reporting of resources, processes, and incidents.
intend to ensure aquifer integrity and protect groundwater quality
and quantity
. All respondents considered monitoring and
reporting of resources and processes as very important, with
one considering it probably the most important aspectof UOG
extraction. Monitoring of waste generation and waste manage-
ment, groundwater quality and quantity impacts during and after
S. Esterhuyse et al.
Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals npj Clean Water (2022) 3
Fig. 2 Importance and ease of enforcement of proposed groundwater regulations (n=20). Percentage of respondents viewing specic
UOG extraction regulations for protecting groundwater resources as important and how easy respondents think their enforcement would be.
S. Esterhuyse et al.
npj Clean Water (2022) 3 Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals
UOG extraction, the fracking process, well integrity during and
after UOG extraction, induced seismicity, and reporting any
incidents were all considered important. Of all the monitoring
regulations, well integrity was viewed as most difcult to enforce,
especially after well decommissioning, probably because of the
lack of clear well-decommissioning guidelines. Respondents also
viewed the establishment of an independent UOG extraction
monitoring committee to implement regional monitoring and
audit the operatorssite-specic monitoring protocols as impor-
tant. Such compliance monitoring and enforcement could provide
credibility and ensure effective governance.
Best available technologies and practices (BATP). is a precau-
tionary regulation that demands the use of such technologies and
practices to avoid harm to water resources
. Most respondents
viewed the proposed BATP regulations as very important, as
underscored by the position statement by South Africas Centre
for Environmental Rights
. The BATP regulations that respon-
dents viewed as most important were proper well construction
and using technologies to predict, prevent and mitigate accidents
and monitor for well leakages. According to one respondent,
technologies should not be prescribed by the regulator but left to
the operator (i.e. the regulations should set the goalposts but
allow the industry the space to meet the objectives taking a risk-
based approach), as the regulator is generally not sufciently
experienced to identify best practices and the industry is in a
better position to innovate and introduce t-for-purpose applica-
tions. Another respondent, however, said BATP must be dened
for each operational step and that operators and regulators must
have a common understanding of BATP, since one operators
BATP may be better than anothers.
Public information and disclosure (PID). regulations facilitate
public disclosure and the independent review of testing
procedures and results
. Respondents viewed these regulations
as important, with the most important being the disclosure of all
ingredients in fracking uids, followed by water quality monitor-
ing results from decommissioned wells and the total volume of
water used in fracking. Only 40% of respondents thought fracking
companies should be exempted from disclosure, to protect trade
secrets, and 60% approved of a process to challenge trade secret
protection, to stop companies from obtaining an exemption from
certain disclosures. Three respondents took serious issue with
trade secret exemptions. One of them said there should be no
exceptions to disclosing information and that trade secretswere
not a valid excuse and therefore saw no need for a process to
challenge a claim for a trade secret. Respondents considered the
disclosure of fracking uids and the trade name of fracking
chemicals and suppliers the most difcult to enforce. Respondents
suggested improvements to disclosures, including ensuring the
responsible use of publicly disclosed information (to minimize
misuse of information by campaign groups), ensuring that
operators can be trusted to produce truthful disclosure reports
of chemicals used in each well, as these can differ, having public
input into the licensing process and having a disclosure format
that can be understood by a layperson.
Well decommissioning regulations. aim to protect groundwater
over the long term. Between 1.9 and 75% of oil and gas wells fail
due to mechanical well casing failure
, and could contaminate
groundwater. The safe decommissioning and continued monitor-
ing of decommissioned wells are therefore paramount to protect
groundwater quality over the long term
. Respondents were
unanimous that a groundwater quality survey before fracking is
indispensable to serve as a baseline after well decommissioning.
Well integrity monitoring after well decommissioning, monitoring
groundwater quality in the vicinity of decommissioned wells, and
taxes for long-term monitoring after decommissioning were also
viewed as important. Respondents viewed monitoring well
integrity after closure and imposing taxes to ensure long-term
monitoring as the most difcult regulations to enforce.
South Africas capacity to enforce UOG extraction and
fracking regulations
Regulations must be properly enforced to ensure water resources
protection. To ensure compliance with and enforcement of UOG
regulations, respondents felt that ning UOG operators who did
not comply was an important tool to ensure compliance with
regulations. Another would be requiring them to compensate for
pollution incidents, for example by supplying water where water
sources are polluted. One respondent did not believe operators
would do this if pollution only surfaced 510 years after they had
left a fracking area, and proposed that operators be levied during
their operations for remedying future pollution incidents and that
such funds be separately managed by an institution independent
from government. Supplying nancial security in terms of
obligations related to water use licenses and for addressing latent
and residual water-related impacts arising from UOG extraction
was also viewed as very important. One respondent felt that
personal liability should also be considered as a deterrent for
activities that may cause groundwater pollution.
To ensure compliance with regulations, enforcement mechan-
isms must be implemented by government. We, therefore,
assessed South Africas policies and institutional capacity to
enforce regulations on UOG extraction and fracking. We
compared our 2019 capacity survey results with those of a
2012 survey, in which we asked different respondents from the
same institutions the same questions
. Institutional capacity
constraints are, according to the respondents, the crux of the
shale gas development issue in South Africaand our biggest
challenge, and they fear that UOG extraction will completely
over-extend the already very limited capacity within our
government departments.
All but one respondent felt that South Africa does not have the
institutional capacity to enforce compliance with specied license
conditions or to monitor UOG extraction operations. Ninety
percent of respondents also felt strongly that fragmented
departmental responsibilities and conicting departmental man-
dates would make it complicated to regulate UOG extraction
Eighty percent of respondents felt that the Mineral and Petroleum
Resources Development Act of 2002, the main Act regulating oil
and gas extraction, is insufcient in scope to handle fracking and
that amendments would be required to our statutes. Sixty-ve
percent stated that South Africa does not have specic policies to
deal with fracking or sufcient regulations to control it. As
mentioned earlier, South Africas only fracking-specic regulations,
drafted in 2015, were set aside in court because they did not
sufciently protect groundwater resources
To enforce regulations, 90% of respondents agreed that
fracking-specic legislation and regulations must be developed,
and particularly monitoring protocols. Sixty-ve percent of
respondents felt that self-regulation and reporting to government
could alleviate government human resource pressures and that
market-based regulatory tools would also be useful in addition to
command-and-control regulations such as margin-of-safety reg-
ulations or BATP. Our respondents supported strong measures to
ensure compliance, such as an independent regulatory entity
reporting to government, a central database, and nes for
violators. It is important, however, to note that 70% of them said
a SEA on available energy generation options must be done
before South Africa decides whether to allow UOG extraction.
Finally, when asked whether South Africa can protect ground-
water resources effectively by regulating UOG extraction, only
30% of respondents believed this would be possible.
S. Esterhuyse et al.
Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals npj Clean Water (2022) 3
The South African government actively supports UOG develop-
ment to augment its energy supplies
. To develop a UOG
extraction regulatory framework, South Africa has published
fracking regulations in 2015 and commissioned a shale gas
development SEA in 2016. The 2015 fracking regulations have
however been invalidated. The South African government can
currently not permit UOG extraction due to the lack of a clear
regulatory framework to protect water resources during fracking.
Water sourcing for fracking in water-scarce South Africa is a
serious regulatory concern and is viewed as the main factor
limiting UOG development in South Africa
, similar to China
Internationally, regulations to protect groundwater from contam-
ination during UOG extraction are also extremely important, both
for water-scarce and water-abundant countries
. The US has
extensive regulations to protect groundwater resources
, but
despite the importance of protecting groundwater, some US
states still fail at regulating UOG extraction
, frustrating efforts to
identify water resource contamination and determine liability
Given the risks to water resources, and considering the precau-
tionary principle, regulations to properly protect South African
groundwater resources must be drafted.
To assist in the development of a UOG extraction regulatory
framework to protect South African groundwater resources, we
assessed the usefulness and enforceability of specic regulations.
Of these, baselines of water use and water quality before fracking
are indispensable for protecting groundwater resources. Respon-
dents doubted whether the South African regulator can enforce
baseline monitoring regulations and called for a sophisticated
regulator with state-of-the-art monitoring equipment and sys-
tems, integrity, and codes of ethics, an ability to operate
independently, and competent staff empowered to enforce
regulations, such as shutting down an expensive drilling operation
when there are real safety concerns. Internationally, the lack of
baselines before fracking challenges the identication of ground-
water contamination sources and extents
. Under margin of
safety regulations, regulating well spacing density, although not
viewed as very important by most respondents, could also ensure
a smaller surface footprint and limit wastewater generation
lower density of surface wells would also limit possible interaction
between hydraulically generated fractures and existing wells or
other underground infrastructure
, thereby limiting upward
migration of contaminants into freshwater aquifers. Under margin
of safety regulations, the enforcement of setbacks for aquifer
recharge areas and geological structures were viewed as the most
difcult to enforce, because geological and hydrogeological
complexity complicates the identication of all the sensitive
aquifers and geological structures that could be at risk
Groundwater characterization data in South Africa (and sub-
Saharan Africa) is limited because of continued underinvestment
in groundwater, while technical and institutional capacity
constraints hamper sustainable groundwater development and
. Limited groundwater data is also an interna-
tional concern
. In South Africa, an important margin-of-safety
regulation is the setting of a vertical limit for fracking at 1500 m
below surface. Karoo hot springs indicate geothermal circulation
at 700800 m below surface, making a connection between deep
and shallow aquifers more likely at depths of less than 1500 m.
Recent research indicates some degree of connection between
the Beaufort and the gas-containing Ecca aquifers, legitimizing
concerns about shallow-deep aquifer connections
. Interna-
tionally, prohibitory precautionary regulations to protect water
resources are difcult to enforce because of UOG operator
pushback against such prohibitions, which abounds in countries
that use fracking
. Respondents viewed prohibiting the use of
harmful, toxic, or carcinogenic chemicals as the most important
prohibitory regulation, but also the most difcult to enforce,
possibly because it would be difcult to independently determine
if UOG operators are using prohibited chemicals. BATP regulations
reduce pollution but often suffer from underinvestment
. Its
effective implementation is hampered by a time lag between
technological development in the UOG industry and government
adaptation of regulations to include the most recent BATP.
Governments could incentivize BATP adoption by giving tax
breaks to companies that develop better BATP. PID regulations,
such as disclosing fracking chemicals, even though extremely
important for groundwater protection, are often difcult to
enforce because of the desire to protect trade secrets
Governments could exempt fracking companies from publicly
disclosing information to protect trade secrets, and have a process
to challenge trade secret protection, to stop companies from
obtaining an exemption from certain disclosures. Most South
African respondents did however not favor this option. Companies
often actively undermine disclosure policies by lobbying for
weaker regulations, or drownusers in disclosure information,
sometimes in such a format that information users do not have
the time, resources, or expertise to analyse it effectively
. All
respondents viewed PID regulations as difcult to enforce and
usable information hard to obtain. Proper well decommissioning is
important to avoid legacy groundwater contamination issues
Enforcing well integrity monitoring after closure and imposing
taxes to ensure long-term monitoring can however be difcult
because it is difcult to determine how to decommission a well
safely yet still be able to monitor it. In South Africa, collecting and
administering taxes for long-term monitoring may also be
problematic, given the current poor governance of our natural
resources, with corruption and bribes, real and reputed, abound-
. Further, South Africa taxes go into the general scus and
there is no mechanism to ensure that the money will be used for
long-term monitoring or legacy impacts.
Poor enforcement is where even the best regulations could fail.
Only a third of the respondents felt that South Africa would be
able to protect groundwater resources properly by regulating
UOG extraction, not because the regulations themselves would be
technically challenging to comply with, but because regulators,
not only in South Africa but also internationally, do not know
enough about the risks of UOG development to draft proper
. Other reasons include that regulation is
complex because of the fragmented departmental responsibilities
and conicting departmental mandates (a problem also observed
in the US, Canada and China
. In South Africa, institutional
capacity is also insufcient to monitor fracking activities and UOG
extraction impacts on natural resources (a problem also observed
in the US, Canada, and China
). For example, more than
half the oil and gas wells in the US are not inspected annually to
check compliance with regulations and some state agencies
cannot employ enough employees for their oversight pro-
grammes, with the result that violators are less likely to be cited,
ned, or prosecuted
. Lastly, the political will to enforce
compliance with UOG extraction regulations lacks, not only in
South Africa and other developing countries (China, Argentina,
and Brazil)
but also in developed countries such as Spain
and the US
. Financial securities can be used to enforce
regulations. Operators should not view a nancial security
requirement or the levying of impact funds as a license to pollute.
In the US, discretionary review, tiered monetary penalties, and civil
suits are common enforcement mechanisms
. As these do not,
however, provide sufcient compliance incentives or penalties for
non-compliance, enforcement could benet from the additional
tool of criminal sanctions for signicant violations, if applied fairly
(in proportion to the violation
Self-regulation and reporting to government, as well as market-
based regulatory tools, could alleviate government capacity
pressures and ensure better enforcement of regulations in
countries not properly equipped to regulate UOG extraction.
S. Esterhuyse et al.
npj Clean Water (2022) 3 Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals
In countries with regulatory capacity constraints and corruption
concerns, the establishment of an independent regulatory entity
with a scientic background in fracking could help governments
by drafting and regularly reviewing regulations tailored to the
countrys specic needs. Here, country-specic geological com-
plexities, governance structures, capacity constraints, and techno-
logical advances should be considered. It could also establish and
administer an independent trust fund to manage collected funds
for long-term monitoring after well decommissioning and perform
regional monitoring of groundwater resources in UOG extraction
areas and reporting to government. Lastly, it could perform
compliance monitoring of UOG extraction operations and store all
data in a publicly accessible central database, and ensuring proper
dissemination of data to all interested and affected parties. Such
an entity would have to be transparent and have the trust of the
regulators, the operators, and the general public. It would have to
be comprised of stakeholders from all three groups. All data
gathered by such an entity would have to be stored in a publicly
accessible central database, which could be used for studies and
to assess compliance with regulations. Access to UOG extraction
and monitoring data would be paramount to ensure proper
enforcement of regulations. Without good governance and proper
enforcement, any regulations to protect groundwater resources
would fail dismally.
An important issue highlighted by the survey was that two-
thirds of the South African respondents felt that the government
must do a SEA of available energy generation options, before
deciding whether to allow UOG extraction. This is important
because water resources are the one main limiting factor for UOG
extraction in water-scarce countries. First performing such an
assessment, prioritising energy generation options, and then
drafting regulations for UOG extraction (if it is seen as a viable
option), would uphold the South African constitutional obligation
to promote sustainable development and pass reasonable
legislative (and other) measures to protect the environment for
the benet of present and future generations.
This study offers crucial insights into how to protect ground-
water resources during UOG extraction, using regulations.
Fracking can use a large amount of groundwater and also pollute
groundwater resources, a major concern in many water-scarce
countries. It is therefore important that governments protect
groundwater resources during UOG extraction, especially when
considering additional stressors such as population growth or
climate change. Many studies have looked at specic regulations
to protect water resources during UOG extraction. We have gone
further: we reviewed, classied, and systematically tested the
many different regulations that are currently applied internation-
ally (sometimes in a patchwork fashion), to assess their usefulness
in protecting groundwater resources.
Our survey of expert responses was done in South Africa and
some of our proposed UOG extraction regulations are specicto
South Africas geography and governance systems. Nevertheless,
most of the insights this paper offers would be useful for any
country that must still develop regulations, or whose current
regulations need amendment.
Survey design
We canvassed 20 respondentsopinions on the importance and
enforceability of UOG extraction regulations we proposed that were
designed to protect groundwater resources during all the phases of
extraction, from before exploration until after well decommissioning.
Our regulations, classied into eight groups (Fig. 2), were based on a
detailed examination of UOG extraction regulations commonly used to
protect groundwater resources in countries that have such regulations in
place, and a long history of UOG extraction: the US, Canada Australia, and the
. We also assessed respondentsviews on the capacity of the South
African government to enforce these regulations successfully, via a list of
carefully structured questions on South Africas fracking policy, governance
structure, and current legislation and regulations that are in place.
We designed a self-administered structured questionnaire to test the
respondentsperceptions and opinions of our proposed fracking regula-
tions, as this is a good tool to elicit stakeholder opinions at a pre-decision
. In South Africa, previous drafts of fracking regulations had been
rejected, so we are still in the pre-decision phase of the drafting of fracking
regulations. The self-administered questionnaire also allowed informants
time to complete the survey on their own schedules, with additional time
to collect information to help inform their responses and ensure carefully
considered responses
. The questionnaire gave respondents considerable
exibility by including open-ended questions where they could describe
their reasoning or any other concerns not captured in the Likert scale
questions. Our survey was anonymous to increase our chances of eliciting
stakeholder opinions, as fracking is a sensitive and contentious topic in
South Africa
. Anonymity meant that the respondents could give their
considered opinions unconstrained by corporate, political, or other
Eliciting viewpoints from knowledgeable informants, referred to in the
literature as key informant elicitation, can make a valuable contribution to
informed decision-making and is a useful tool to explore regulatory
uncertainty (in this case UOG extraction regulation). To obtain carefully
considered and meaningful judgments based on a systematic considera-
tion of all relevant evidence, we took the question on UOG regulation apart
into its component pieces so we could ask respondents to rate the
importance and enforceability of a very detailed and specic list of
regulations. This gave us eight regulatory areas:
Baseline monitoring
Management plans
Margin of safety regulations
Prohibitory precautionary regulations
Monitoring and reporting of resources and processes
Best available technologies and processes (BATP)
Public information and disclosure
Well decommissioning
The questionnaire was carefully developed over several months. We
tested it on two groundwater practitioners with knowledge of fracking in
countries outside South Africa. Two respondents with no groundwater
knowledge, but with fracking knowledge, also read it to determine
whether the questionnaire was generally understandable. Feedback
gathered this way was incorporated into the questionnaire. We did not
test the questionnaire on any of our targeted respondents (South African
groundwater specialists) to ensure that we did not unduly inuence them
during the development phase of the questionnaire. We also took care to
ensure that any possibly unfamiliar concepts were explained in our
questionnaire, to ensure that respondents understood the questions and
could give proper feedback.
We emailed our respondents the survey, gave them time to go through
the questionnaire, and then contacted them to discuss any uncertainties
they might have about any of the questions. Respondents could also
contact us with any questions or concerns while completing the
questionnaire, or afterwards if they wanted to add more information to
any open-ended questions. The survey was launched in November 2018
and closed in August 2019.
Successful eliciting of information from respondents depends on the
respondentsknowledge and commitment. Given our focus on regulations
to protect groundwater resources during UOG extraction, our ideal
respondents were groundwater specialists with knowledge of UOG
extraction and fracking through work or research. Because our target
group was very specic, our sample was of necessity small. We used
publication history and peer nomination of groundwater specialists to
select our respondents. We approached 31 South African groundwater
specialists, which represented the whole pool of suitable respondents.
Twenty of these completed the survey, a response rate of 64.5%. Some
potential respondents declined to complete the survey due to the sensitive
nature of this subject in South Africa, or because they felt that they did not
know enough about the subject. Sixty-ve percent of respondents (n=13)
had more than 10 yearsgroundwater experience, and of those, 69% (n=
9) had more than 20 yearsexperience.
S. Esterhuyse et al.
Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals npj Clean Water (2022) 3
To assess their knowledge levels, we asked them to rate the extent of their
knowledge about UOG extraction and fracking, their levels of satisfaction
with their knowledge, and to indicate the sources of their knowledge (Fig. 3).
Most felt that their knowledge about groundwater impacts from both
fracking and UOG extraction were extensive to good. Their knowledge about
how the industry should be regulated was more limited, with 55% of
respondents (n=11) rating their knowledge about the regulation of UOG
extraction in South Africa as extensive to good, and only 45% (n=9) rating
their knowledge about the regulation of UOG extraction internationally as
extensive to good. Most were not satised with their levels of knowledge of
any of these aspects. Most had sourced their information on UOG extraction
and fracking from scientic sources in the form of research reports (80%),
scholarly articles (75%), and government reports (60%). They consulted
popular media sources less extensively.
The respondents were from government, non-governmental organiza-
tions (NGOs), groundwater consultancies, and industry. We targeted a
Fig. 3 Extent of knowledge, satisfaction with knowledge and knowledge sources (n=20). Extent of respondents' knowledge on the
impacts of hydraulic fracturing (HF) and unconventional oil and gas (UOG) extraction, knowledge on the regulation of UOG extraction,
satisfaction with this knowledge, and the extent to which different knowledge sources have been consulted by the respondents.
S. Esterhuyse et al.
npj Clean Water (2022) 3 Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals
variety of sectors to get different perspectives on the importance of the
regulations we proposed and how easy they would be to enforce. In South
Africa, there is a complex interplay between these different institutions as
regards groundwater protection. The Department of Water and Sanitation
has very few groundwater specialists
as most have moved to
consultancy companies
, but the few who are left must still draft
regulations and ensure they are enforced. Academia and consultancies are
often called on to assist government in some of its functions
, so the
country does have fairly good groundwater resource management
capacity, although most of this capacity is located at the consultancies.
It was, therefore, important to elicit the opinions of groundwater specialists
from several institutions. The respondents were from the different
institutions as follows: consultancies 55% (n=11), government 20%
(n=4), educational institutions 10% (n=2), mining, oil and gas industries
10% (n=2) and NGOs 5% (n=1).
Data analysis
We analysed the quantitative data with the statistical package for social
sciences version 25. Qualitative data were analysed thematically to add more
depth to the quantitative data interpretation and to better understand
respondent concerns about our proposed regulations. Qualitative data from
open-ended questions was especially useful for gathering information about
regulations that might be needed in addition to the ones we proposed.
Differences between the respondent groups (based on qualications,
institution, and years of experience) were tested using the Kruskal Wallis
statistical test, and the Mann Whitney Utest was used to identify the specic
differences within the groups. We identied signicant differences only in the
respondentsopinions on the enforcement of regulations and only according
to their years of experience. We found that respondents with less than 20
yearsexperience viewed the enforcement of specicsetbacks,BATP
regulations, and PID regulations as more difcult than respondents with
more than 20 yearsexperience (see Supplementary Table 3). This could be
because in South Africa specialists with fewer years of experience typically
work in government institutions and are therefore more aware of the
difculties those institutions currently experience, while those with more
yearsof experience typically work in consultancy rms. This is conrmed by
our biographical data and the 2016 groundwater strategy for South Africa
We also assessed whether there were signicant differences in respondent
views on the institutional capacity to regulate UOG extraction, between a
survey that we carried out in 2012 and our 2019 survey, using the Mann
Whitney Utest. There were no signicant differences between the two groups
in their views on South Africas capacity to regulate fracking, except that the
2019 group felt that South Africa had a clearer fracking policy than the 2012
group (U=134, Z=2.98, p=0.003). Both the 2012 and 2019 groups felt
that South Africa would not be able to effectively regulate fracking.
We acknowledge two limitations of our study. One is the small sample size,
the reason for which has been explained. Note that our use of percentages
to represent this very small sample is not intended as a claim to statistical
validity or generalizability. The percentages are used to ease reading and
to demonstrate how our survey method might be extrapolated to a larger
sample, and in the gures to aid in visual interpretation. Another limitation
is the unevenness of the sample, with more than half of the respondents
being of one type (11 of the 20 were from consultancies), which could
introduce bias.
Datasets related to this study will be made available upon request by the
corresponding author, subject to compliance with the University of the Free State
research ethics board restrictions on survey data.
Received: 8 June 2021; Accepted: 1 December 2021;
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We thank the reviewers who contributed to the development of the questionnaire
used in this study, and to the groundwater experts who took time to complete the
S. Esterhuyse et al.
npj Clean Water (2022) 3 Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals
S.E. conceptualized the research, developed the survey instrument, executed the
survey, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. D.V and J.G. assisted in
conceptualization of the research, reviewed the questionnaire and the manuscript
and contributed to the writing of the manuscript.
The University of the Free State ethics board approved the survey instrument (UFS-
HSD2018/1420). Informed consent was obtained from all respondents. The respondents
completed the survey anonymously to ensure adherence to ethical guidelines.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Supplementary information The online version contains supplementary material
available at
Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to S. Esterhuyse.
Reprints and permission information is available at
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© The Author(s) 2022
S. Esterhuyse et al.
Published in partnership with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals npj Clean Water (2022) 3
... A CI platform is a technological system that uses public and institutional data to address environmental management problems such as the regulation of UOG extraction and is an ideal tool to serve as an interface between science, society and policy. Since South Africa is highly dependent on groundwater, our study focused on the development of a CI platform to properly enforce fracking regulations to protect groundwater resources [22]. ...
... FracFocus is an important regulatory tool for compliance in terms of chemical disclosure, but incomplete data cannot convey an accurate picture of the impacts of UOG extraction on groundwater. Companies also often disclose information and data in a manner that either bombards the public with information uninterpretable by the general reader or undermines the regulations [22,68], which makes it challenging for emergency response teams to handle accidents, spills or any emergency. ...
... The diffuse and regional-scale placement of UOG extraction infrastructure leads to spatial knowledge gaps that make it difficult to do comprehensive environmental assessments that accurately identify cumulative impacts [2,68,82]. With information disclosure exemptions, understanding environmental impacts and the linked health outcomes become increasingly difficult for citizens, as does finding common ground with others [22,68,79,81]. Legislation that currently governs UOG extraction in the US, does not address these different knowledge gaps [67,68,80]. ...
Full-text available
Unconventional oil and gas (UOG) is an important energy source for many countries, but requires large quantities of water for its development, and may pollute water resources. Regulations are one of the main tools to achieve government policy on natural resource protection. South Africa, which is energy-constrained, but also water-scarce, is currently considering UOG extraction as an additional energy resource. UOG development could commence as soon as regulations to protect natural resources such as water have been published. Such regulations are, however, often not effectively enforced, which negatively affects the protection of water resources during UOG extraction. This study addresses these enforcement challenges in South Africa. It focuses on the science–society–policy interface by proposing a civic informatics platform to assist with on-the-ground enforcement of regulations via a mobile application. This mobile application aims to address both groundwater monitoring and management as well as UOG extraction operations in a single platform, to enable regulators to protect groundwater resources more effectively during UOG extraction, while simultaneously enhancing transparency in the UOG industry.
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Applications for exploratory shale gas development via hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have raised concern about energy development impacts in South Africa. Initially, focus was on the arid Karoo, but interest now includes KwaZulu-Natal, a populous, agricultural province with high cultural, ecological, and economic diversity. We conducted focus groups and an online survey to determine how some South Africans perceive fracking. Focus group participants were unanimous in their opposition, primarily citing concerns over water quality and rural way-of-life. The survey confirmed broad consistency with focus group responses. When asked which provinces might be affected by fracking, KwaZulu-Natal ranked behind provinces in the Karoo, suggesting an awareness bias towards Karoo projects. Frequently-identified concerns regarding Agriculture and Natural Resources were Reduced quality of water, Negative impacts to ecosystems and natural biodiversity, Reduced quantity of water, and Pollution hazards. Frequent concerns regarding Social, Cultural, and Local Community issues were Impacts to human health, Visual/aesthetic degradation of tourism areas, Degradation of local infrastructure, and Physical degradation of tourism sites. Most survey respondents were pessimistic about potential benefits of fracking to South Africa’s domestic energy supply, and did not agree fracking would reduce negative impacts of coal mining or create jobs. Survey respondents were pessimistic about government’s preparedness for fracking and agreed fracking created opportunity for corruption. Many respondents agreed they would consider fracking when voting, and identified needs for more research on fracking in South Africa, which focused heavily on environmental impacts, especially water, in addition to the welfare of local citizens and their communities.
There is a need for the development of effective baselines against which the water quality impacts of new developments can be assessed. The specific conductance of flowback water from shale gas operations is typically many times the specific conductance of surface water and near-surface groundwater. This contrast in specific conductance means that specific conductance could be the ideal determinand for detecting water quality impacts from shale gas extraction. If specific conductance is to be used for detecting the impacts of shale gas operations, then a baseline of specific conductance in water bodies is required. Here, Bayesian hierarchical modelling of specific conductance was applied across English groundwater. The modelling used existing, spot-sampled data from the years 2000 to 2018 from 537 unique borehole locations. When the differences between boreholes was considered, then the approach was sufficiently sensitive to detect 1% mixing of fracking fluid in groundwater at a 95% confidence interval. The Bayesian hierarchical modelling maximises the return on public investment and provides a means by which future observations can be judged.
Fracking affects a range of communities in different ways and requires a holistic approach to its policy formation. There are a multitude of reactions to fracking, and in this perspective article, we argue that all require representation. Whilst Spain, as a state with dominant central authority, has devolved some responsibilities the local level, these communities remain powerless in legislative terms. Nevertheless, various platforms, NGOs, and autonomous communities have expressed strong opposition to fracking and as a result have had a certain amount of success in halting the development of unconventional gas. Despite this progress in their activism, it is evident that public opinion requires more robust and complete representation. Labelling these movements as cases of NIMBYism seeks to detract legitimacy from their concerns. To achieve a representative and legitimate democratic outcome in relation to fracking governance in Spain, distributive and procedural deficiencies must be addressed. As Spain contemplates its fracking future, within its currently precarious political context, it would do well to learn from the regulatory and governmental failures in other jurisdictions and seek to develop a robust framework that solicits and accommodates the range of valid and informed perspectives held on this topic. There is some indication of movement in this direction; offering some optimism that such approaches could be systematised.
In the past few years numerous assumptions were made on groundwater in the Karoo Basin and related shale gas development, but not many baseline studies were conducted on groundwater and on boreholes where methane currently occurs. This article focuses on one of these boreholes (BHA) in the Ubuntu Local Municipality area, located close to a dolerite ring structure, which is releasing methane gas. Water samples were analysed for macro and trace elements, environmental isotopes and methane concentrations. Chemical analyses results indicate that groundwater at this borehole may be a mixture between deep groundwater, shallow groundwater and meteoric water. A rise in the groundwater level and subsequent flowing artesian conditions that was observed, support the theory that mixing between deeper groundwater from the Ecca Group and shallower water from the Beaufort Group is taking place. These water level reactions could be due to possible seismic activity within close proximity to the dolerite ring structure and/or due to recharge and interflow to BHA.
Unconventional oil and gas (UOG) extraction using fracking can damage groundwater resources, a crucial resource in many countries. Protecting groundwater will become more urgent as climate change and population growth increase pressure on water demand, especially in water‐scarce countries. But despite the strategic importance of groundwater, it is often poorly managed during UOG extraction. This review considers three types of regulation (command‐and‐control, market‐based and voluntary) in countries where UOG extraction is allowed, to identify the best suite of regulations to protect groundwater resources during this process. We propose a regulatory framework that includes both “hard” command‐and‐control regulations and “soft” market‐based and voluntary regulations. If regulations are to protect groundwater resources effectively, public disclosure of UOG operations must be required and the information must be stored in publicly accessible databases. This would allow for independent scientific review of data by academia and the private sector, in addition to government scrutiny of the data. These parties can then make recommendations to government, allowing timeous and appropriate adaptive management and the amendment of regulations as necessary. And, most importantly, these regulations must be properly enforced to avoid (in some cases irreversible) damage to groundwater resources. This article is characterized under: Engineering Water > Sustainable Engineering of Water Human Water > Water Governance Science of Water > Water Quality Proposed regulatory framework to protect groundwater resources during UOG extraction
Growing attention has been paid to understanding public risk perceptions of shale gas development. This research has largely been conducted in the United States and Europe. Arguably, the environmental and social risks posed by drilling are potentially more severe in places like China, due to its geography and political system. However, little is known how those constantly exposed to risks (the “affected” public) evaluate these risks. In this study, in-depth interviews were conducted with local residents (n=25) in Weiyuan County, Sichuan Province, the region with the largest shale gas reserves in the country, to identify the perceived risks of the affected Chinese public and to explore underlying factors that impact risk perception. Our results suggest that affected Chinese residents were most concerned about groundwater contamination and air pollution above all other risks, and they tended to link risks to spatial proximity to shale gas wells. The multifaceted nature of perceived benefits played a novel and nuanced role in Chinese residents’ risk perception. Pride and disempowerment were found to attenuate the risk judgments of affected Chinese residents, which has not been observed in previous literature. Our findings provides policymakers with insight into how to improve risk communications to enhance understanding of affected publics, as well as to better design compensation schemes that may address inequities.
Unconventional oil and gas (UOG) exploitation may generate large volumes of wastewater, with dire environmental consequences if not properly managed. We systematically reviewed literature, reports, and fracking databases to determine possible volumes of wastewater that may be generated during UOG extraction. We then determined ranges of expected UOG extraction wastewater volumes for different UOG production scenarios in South Africa. Based on the results, we discuss associated wastewater management implications for South Africa, where UOG exploitation is planned in the future. The recommendations emanating from this article are equally important for other countries already extracting UOG resources, or that plan to do so in the future.
High-volume, hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) is widely applied for natural gas and oil production from shales, coals or tight sandstone formations in the United States, Canada, and Australia, and is being widely considered by other countries with similar unconventional energy resources. Secure retention of fluids (natural gas, saline formation waters, oil, HVHF fluids) during and after well stimulation is important to prevent unintended environmental contamination, and release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Here, we critically review state-of-the-art techniques and promising new approaches for identifying oil and gas production from unconventional reservoirs to resolve whether they are the source of fugitive methane and associated contaminants into shallow aquifers. We highlight future research needs and propose a phased program, from generic baseline to highly specific analyses, to inform HVHF and unconventional oil and gas production and impact assessment studies. These approaches may also be applied to broader subsurface exploration and development issues (e.g., groundwater resources), or new frontiers of low-carbon energy alternatives (e.g., subsurface H2 storage, nuclear waste isolation, geologic CO2 sequestration).