By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's mineral resources minister said on Thursday the government remains committed to shale gas exploration despite a court order revoking fracking regulations that pushes back plans to award the first exploration licenses by 2019.
Farmers lobby AgriSA had said earlier that the High Court had issued an order quashing regulations governing proposed shale gas fracking in the Eastern Cape, one of the main areas where proposed shale gas exploration could take place.
The ruling to quash the regulations marked the latest setback to South Africa's shale gas ambitions after a scientific study published last month suggested its Karoo Basin probably has a fraction of estimated deposits, deflating expectations of an energy bonanza.
However, Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane told Reuters the government could appeal the ruling and it was also considering a period of two years before any drilling started, taking into account various environmental and safety concerns.
"We remain committed (to shale gas exploration). We will study the outcome of the court and decide where we go," he said.
"We are talking about first fracking licenses being granted in 2019 if everything goes well."
Africa's most industrialized economy has been hoping to find sufficient shale gas resources to exploit on a commercial basis.
South Africa’s government said in May it might award its first shale gas exploration license by the end of September, after environmental objections delayed the process.
"The judgment in our favor shows what can be accomplished when a community rallies around something as potentially devastating as fracking," Janse Rabie, AgriSA's natural resources chief, told Reuters.
Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil and Gas and Bundu Gas & Oil are among five companies whose applications were being reviewed by the regulator.
Criticized by environmentalists worried about its ecological impact, fracking involves using water and chemicals at high pressure to crack rock and release the gas.
Campaigners say fracking could threaten the environment of the semi-arid Karoo, famed for its rugged scenery and rare wildlife.
The application to review and quash South Africa's shale gas regulations, which has been in place since June 2015, was brought by the president of Agri Eastern Cape, together with 15 other applicants, including the agricultural unions of rural towns Graaff-Reinet and Cradock.
The court found the minister does not have the authority in terms of the law to make regulations concerning environmental issues, said oil and gas lawyer Lizel Oberholzer.
"So if the appeal does not succeed the regulations will have to be redrafted and this could cause additional delays," she said.
(Editing by James Macharia and Pritha Sarkar)