Claire Martens is the senior communications officer at Natural Justice. The organisation is supporting the court challenge.
The Richards Bay of my childhood memories is towering coal chutes, giant brick warehouses and a smoky pall over the town. Hockey injuries on the school fields resulted in blackened wounds that took weeks to heal.
By then, the industry had already taken its toll on the seaside town on the northern coastline of KwaZulu-Natal. Two decades later and the town’s industrialisation continues to grow with a new project being considered by Eskom — a 3,000MW combined cycle power plant.
In South Africa, rolling blackouts have meant that the development of energy capacity is foremost in the government’s mind. But, despite years of advocacy for a “just transition” and for renewable energy capacity to be quickly and efficiently developed, the government still looks to polluting fuels for electricity production.
Isn’t it time we stopped our dependency on these types of energy projects?
Many communities across the world are standing up against such polluting developments as awareness of viable alternatives becomes more prominent.
Unfortunately, the gas industry is trying to make us believe gas is the viable alternative; but this is not the case. Throughout the world, gas is being touted as a coal or oil alternative — and is used by governments to justify gas-to-power projects. But gas, like all other fossil fuels, is a driver of climate change, especially if you consider the life-cycle emissions of any project.
In April this year, two local organisations, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and groundWork, filed papers in the Pretoria High Court challenging the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s authorisation of the Richards Bay plant. This landmark litigation marks the first time that a gas-to-power plant has been challenged in a court in South Africa.
The case is centred on deficiencies in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), but also looks very closely at the polluting power of this massive new plant — calling out the false ideas about so-called “natural” gas.
In their court papers, the organisations argue that the total life-cycle greenhouse gas and methane emissions from the power plant should have been properly assessed, as the latest science suggests that the greenhouse gas footprint of gas is worse than that of either coal or oil; particularly when considered within the 20-year timescale most relevant to our climate future.
Besides the contributions to South Africa’s emissions, there are many other environmental and health issues raised by this matter. While Richards Bay is an industrialised town, it is also an important town for tourism and a gateway into the beautiful surrounding game parks and coastal spots. One of the main attractions is abundant birdlife. The ocean surrounds are used for many recreational activities, as well as for subsistence fishing.
With the mining facilities, an industrial development zone and port facility, including one of the world’s largest coal exporting facilities, the town’s occupants are subject to very poor air quality and the marine and local environment is always under threat from leakages, spills and other industrial-related emissions and accidents.
What has been shocking is that local people say they do not know about the power plant. The lack of generalised and robust public consultation has resulted in communities being marginalised and excluded from the public participation process.
The Richards Bay Combined Cycle Power Plant will be fuelled via a gas pipeline that will be installed from the Richards Bay Port, which also lends itself to gas leakages or explosions. Is the government ready for managing such a disaster? What about the other disasters that have and will affect coastal towns in the future?
KwaZulu-Natal has already been exposed to seaside flooding, the latest caused by tropical storm Eloise earlier this year. Climate change has a way of exposing our urban vulnerabilities.
A proper assessment of the impacts of the power plant is important in this context, especially the cumulative impacts of the many other gas projects proposed in Richards Bay — and yes, there are more. This failure is inexcusable in light of the potential climate harms associated with these projects, but also the direct environmental and social harms that could come from this, including the threats of gas explosions.
The case against the power plant is buoyed by a study conducted by the Centre for Science and Industrial Research and Meridian, an independent auditing firm that is included in the court papers. This study shows that, under a least-cost scenario, a combined cycle power plant mid-merit gas plant, like the proposed Richards Bay plant, is not necessary for at least another 15 years, if at all, to meet South Africa’s energy demands. Until then, diesel can continue to be used by existing generators to meet needs during limited hours of peak electricity demand.
This least-cost pathway avoids building expensive gas infrastructure unless and until the need arises and is economically justified, avoiding locking South Africa into long-term fuel cost commitments.
It feels like bad faith when a government entity fails to comply with the law.
In the Earthlife Africa case handed down in 2017, the high court considered how the environmental impacts posed by climate change should be assessed. This was a significant precedent; yet was not applied in the EIA. The organisations found that the emissions from the entire life-cycle of the project are not properly accounted for, and these are significant — and would be inconsistent with South Africa’s international commitments.
A confusing aspect of the matter has also been noted.
In South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan, the country has allocated 3,000MW for gas, which is the amount that will be generated by this power plant alone. However, under a September 2020 Ministerial determination, this has already been allocated to private generation and not to Eskom. This means that the Richards Bay power plant would apply over and above the 3,000MW of new gas in the 2018 IRP, going against the government’s own policies and calling into question its commitment to its national goals.
The Environmental Impact Report excluded an assessment of whether renewable energy power sources could provide reliable energy, instead of a massive gas plant. Certainly, renewable energy will divert more harm from citizens like those in Richards Bay who are subjected to existing pollution and hazards and would benefit from the protection of their health and surrounding environmental resources.
Why is the government still committing South Africa to a regressive, costly and climate-harming future when the alternatives are available?
South Africa is well-positioned to achieve a renewable energy transition without succumbing to the fossil fuel industry’s misleading and dangerous agenda, the fallacy of gas, that will lock the country into decades of dirty gas dependency and emissions. DM/MC
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