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Karpowership SA: Green Scorpions enviro investigation could capsize R225bn deal

Power lines run from one of Eskom's coal-fired power stations near Villiers in the Free State. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK) / A general view of the giant generators inside the Fatmagul Sultan floating power plant moored off the shore of the Lebanese town of Zouk Mosbeh, northern Beirut. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NABIL MOUNZER) / Adobe Stock

The Karpowership SA consortium is weeks away from its deadline to wrap up a 20-year electricity supply deal with Eskom. But a Green Scorpions investigation into ‘misleading’ information may prevent it from getting the environmental authorisation it needs.


The Green Scorpions are investigating whether Karpowership SA or its environmental consultants provided misleading information to secure an emergency exemption from stringent provisions of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema).

The Environmental Management Inspectorate – known as the Green Scorpions – is tasked with investigating environmental crimes.

The investigation could result in criminal charges, but could also torpedo Karpowership’s environmental authorisations, which it needs for its mammoth R225-billion deal with Eskom to go ahead.

In March, the Turkish-led consortium was selected as a preferred bidder to provide 1,220MW of emergency power under the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (RMI4P). The electricity will come from gas-fired powerships which are intended to be moored in the ports of Richards Bay, Coega and Saldanha.

The investigation stems from an extraordinary authorisation in June 2020 – just before the tender was announced – by a top official in the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).

The official exempted Karpowership under an emergency provision of Nema from doing environmental impact assessments (EIAs), supposedly because it would provide emergency power to help combat Covid-19.

The department revoked the exemption after an outcry, claiming it had been misled. This forced Karpowership to reapply, this time with complete EIAs for all three sites. But the DFFE has confirmed that these new applications could be denied if the investigation confirms that Karpowership and its consultants intentionally misled officials.

“The Department is currently investigating the conduct of the [environmental consultants] and [Karpowership] in relation to the Nema… exemption application,” spokesperson Albi Modise said in a written response.

Modise confirmed that the investigation is being led by the “Environmental Management Inspectors within the Department”, aka the Green Scorpions, who have been tasked to establish “whether or not prima facie evidence exists of the commissioning of an offence”.

“Should prima facie evidence exist of an offence, the Department will bring the relevant information to the attention of the South African Police Service for further investigation and/or the Director of Public Prosecutions to commence a prosecution,” he told us.

“If the outcome of the investigation reveals that there was something untoward about their conduct, then that would have a material effect on the current EIA applications that [are] under review by the Department.”

DFFE has also commissioned an external legal review to establish whether Karpowership’s current EIA applications should have been rejected because the proposed projects lacked consent from Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA), as the owner of the land.

Karpowership is hoping to secure TNPA’s consent as a “sole source provider” or through an 11th hour special directive issued by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula. But a legal opinion delivered to Business Unity South Africa last week warned that any permit handed to Karpowership faces a barrage of legal challenges.  

The stakes are high: Karpowership desperately needs its environmental permits and landowner consent before the end of July, the deadline for all preferred bidders selected for the RMI4P tender.

If the Turkish-led consortium fails to secure these permits it risks losing the R183-million bid bond it has put up as collateral. If found guilty of intentionally misleading government officials, Karpowership and its environmental consultants could receive fines of up to R10-million or 10 years in jail.

On the other hand, if the government greenlights Karpowership’s projects, five gas-fired powerships could arrive in South African ports next year. This is intended to kickstart a new energy future for South Africa, one fuelled by liquified natural gas (LNG) but also fraught with environmental problems.

Karpowership declined to respond to our 46 questions covering a wide range of environmental issues. Instead, spokesperson Kay Sexwale said: “We are confident the unfounded claims about the environmental assessments of our projects will be dealt with swiftly. We are continuing to work to the deadlines… and look forward to getting to work helping to alleviate South Africa’s energy challenges and supporting the wider economy.

“Powerships fuelled by LNG are the cleanest, most sustainable way of providing reliable power while supporting South Africa’s transition to renewables. Our projects were awarded preferred bidder status because we provided the best combined package of affordability, cleaner energy, proven technology and economic development initiatives.”

But to understand how we got to the brink of this multibillion-rand deal, we need to go back to 2015, when Karpowership sidled up to Eskom with a tantalising solution to end load shedding. What our research suggests is that the company has a history of trying to leverage emergencies to get its way.

2015: Dear Mr Tsotsi

In February 2015, Eskom was facing the uncomfortable prospect of severe load shedding in summer.

Eskom board chair Zola Tsotsi had a plan though. On 10 February 2015, he wrote to the then energy minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, requesting the go-ahead for three power-generation solutions – “measures which we believe need to be taken immediately in our quest to [relieve] the constraint in the electricity supply system”. 

One of the solutions came from Karadeniz, the parent company of Karpowership: “Their proposal includes the berthing of 500MW ship-plants at our ports. Once a decision to implement the proposal is reached they can dispatch the first 500MW unit onto the grid within six months and then a successive 500MW unit every four months thereafter,” he wrote.

150210_Tsotsi Letter to Joe…

 

Tsotsi did not specify how many ships Eskom would hire, but made it clear that this would not be done through a standard procurement process: “[W]e request the Honourable Minister to authorise Eskom to engage and conclude all required measures to enable speedy implementation of these projects.”

The Public Finance Management Act does make provision for emergency procurement, but state-owned entities like Eskom must jump through numerous hoops to justify such contracts. And in this case, Tsotsi had gone straight to the minister despite Eskom management being lukewarm about the powerships solution.

Tsotsi resigned soon after, and Eskom told Karadeniz to apply to the independent power producer programme, which now falls under the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.

“As there are a number of potential suppliers of powerships… it is necessary to ensure a fair and transparent engagement,” Eskom told City Press at the time.

Tsotsi this week said he did not remember the circumstances of the offer. As far as he could recall, he did not receive an answer from the minister before he stepped down as chair at the end of March 2015.  

2018: For the sake of the elections

Three years later, Karpowership was ready to have another go at the South African market. 

According to Karpowership’s local partner, Sechaba Moletsane, South Africa was once again facing load shedding and with elections coming up in 2019, he implored the Karadeniz family to intervene.  

“We went up to Turkey in [February] 2018… because the elections were coming up and there was major, major load shedding,” he recalled during a recent Mail & Guardian webinar sponsored by Karpowership. 

As much as this was an electricity supply problem, it was also a political one for the ANC, which has historically been reluctant to implement load shedding ahead of the elections, fearing it would cost the party votes.

Moletsane said they approached Eskom, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and the Department of Public Enterprises, but all declined Karpowership’s unsolicited bid.

“[T]hey didn’t uptake our proposal, the elections went on and successfully, so they ended up using more of the peaker plants,” he said, referring to the diesel-fired peaker plants that are Eskom’s last resort to avoid load shedding.

2020: Dr Mabunda’s plan to tackle Covid-19

By 25 June last year, 118,000 South Africans had tested positive for Covid-19 and 2,335 had lost their lives. 

Armed with this and other information about the rapidly escalating infection rate, Dr David Mabunda contacted the DFFE with a plan to tackle the pandemic.

Mabunda was not a medical doctor, but a doctor of tourism management. He had served (not without controversy) as the chief executive of SANParks and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. But he was now representing Karpowership.

Sidebar: MalaMala land claim deal

 Mabunda resigned from SANParks in 2014. At the time, there were questions about R81-million he received from the controversial MalaMala land claim deal. An internal investigation described this as “a serious conflict of interest”, environmental journalism outfit Oxpeckers reported. Mabunda denied wrongdoing at the time, saying he had declared his interest in the deal and received permission to participate.

What South Africa needed, Mabunda told DFFE chief director of compliance Sonnyboy Bapela during a 25 June discussion, was a secure supply of electricity to ensure that hospitals did not go dark and ventilators kept pumping life-saving oxygen to patients. 

What Karpowership needed in return was an emergency permit – issued in terms of Section 30A of Nema – allowing it to bypass the costly and highly technical EIA process that normally takes months to complete.

Section 30A was designed for emergencies when quick action can save lives and prevent environmental disaster. A single independent power producer, hoping to supply Eskom with electricity, generally would not qualify. 

But when a National State of Disaster was declared in March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Karpowership had its emergency.

Sidebar: National State of Disaster

Under section 30A of Nema, a National State of Disaster counts as an emergency situation and gives the environmental minister the power to override ordinary provisions of the act.

“In terms of section 30A, the Minister… and Provincial Authorities may … issue a verbal or written directive to carry out activities without obtaining an environmental authorisation,” lawyers from Webber Wentzel wrote in a March 2020 newsletter. This included building “emergency infrastructure projects to help curb the effects of COVID-19” such as temporary hospitals or cemeteries.

But would powerships count?

The day after his conversation with Mabunda, Bapela gave Karpowership the go-ahead to bring in as many ships as it wanted into the ports of Coega, Richards Bay, Saldanha and Durban – no environmental permits required.

Powerships are more like power plants than cargo ships: critics have warned that the potential harm to fish, birds and Red List species could be severe. These environmental costs may be unavoidable in an emergency. But in July 2020, Karpowership was far from persuading Eskom to buy its electricity.

When Daily Maverick’s Tony Carnie raised the alarm that Karpowership may be abusing its 30A exemption, sales director Patrick O’Driscoll responded: “Although the energy crisis is not new, the need for a reliable and sustainable power supply is required to safeguard critical infrastructure and maintain industry such as the manufacturers and industries that support the medical fields.” 

If Karpowership was asked, he said, it could start supplying power within eight to 10 weeks: “This potential project will assist the government in its efforts to ameliorate the impact of Covid-19 which will have the overall effect of saving lives during the pandemic. It is also vital for post-Covid-19 national recovery strategies.”

DFFE’s Modise told us that of the 12 applications for section 30A exemptions received since the start of the national disaster, only two cited the Covid-19 pandemic as the cause of the emergency. One came from the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, which asked for permission to build “military-type bailey bridges” so that ambulances could access rural areas; the other from Karpowership. 

‘We were misled’

On 24 August 2020, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy released the RMI4P tender, the multibillion-rand procurement to supply Eskom with power for the next 20 years.

The next day, the DFFE sent out a press release saying that it had withdrawn Karpowership’s 30A exemption, essentially because the company did not disclose that it wanted the emergency permits for its proposed RMI4P projects, which would probably only start supplying power in 2022.

“When the company had initially submitted their request it had indicated that the country’s electricity supply was under threat because of the increased pressure on the healthcare system as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

“It has subsequently emerged that the company had applied for the verbal directive… in preparation for the possible implementation of the [RMI4P]. This information was not disclosed to the department [and] it has now emerged that there was in fact no emergency situation”, the release said.

“[I]t will be fair to say the department was misled,” spokesperson Modise recently told amaBhungane.

He explained: “The Department already concluded that there was a reasonable belief that the circumstances pertaining to the emergency situation were materially different from what was indicated in the oral request/written confirmation of the oral request. Accordingly, the section 30A directive was revoked.” 

In other words, what Mabunda told the department in that 25 June meeting allegedly did not match the reality on the ground. That was enough to withdraw the 30A exemption. 

What the Green Scorpions are now investigating is whether Karpowership, Mabunda or Triplo4 Sustainable Solutions, the firm of environmental assessment practitioners doing the consortium’s EIAs, intentionally deceived DFFE in order to secure these valuable exemptions. 

Sidebar: Degrees of deception 

In 2015, the government gazetted new regulations that apply to verbal requests for Section 30A exemptions:

    • In terms of regulation 12, an official can “amend, suspend or revoke” the exemption if “having assessed the scene of the emergency situation or disaster” they have a “reasonable belief” that the circumstances on the ground are “materially different” to what was described in the verbal request. This is why the department revoked Karpowership’s exemption. Karpowership did not challenge the decision.
    • In terms of regulation 15, it is an offence for anyone to “wilfully, knowingly or negligently, provide incorrect or misleading information” to the department in an attempt to secure an exemption. Regulation 16 says that anyone found guilty of this offence is liable for a fine of up to R10-million and/or jail time of up to 10 years. This is what the Green Scorpions are investigating. Karpowership denies that it is guilty of this offence.

Environmental assessment practitioners, like Triplo4, are required to be independent, not paid shills for their clients. If they are found to be complicit in the bogus 30A applications, the new EIAs they have prepared for Karpowership that are now awaiting DFFE approval could be rejected – which could sink the consortium’s R225-billion deal.

“[W]e are investigating the professional conduct of the persons who are alleged to have submitted false and misleading information as this would compromise their independence and objectivity. The findings will be brought to the attention of the unit responsible for assessing the current Environmental Impact Assessment applications,” Modise confirmed.

Hantie Plomp, the sole director of Triplo4 and Karpowership’s lead EIA consultant, declined to answer our detailed questions: “[W]e deny any wrongdoing and advise that a full response cannot be provided as the matters are sub judice,” she said via email.

Mabunda’s role, and that of his company Nselenduna Consulting, appear to be more diverse. Mabunda told us that he is “assisting Triplo4 with the Karpowership project”, but letters attached to court papers show that he also assisted Karpowership to obtain another valuable exemption from the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition. This helped Karpowership to bypass the RMI4P’s 40% local content rule.

Asked about his apparent ability to secure valuable exemptions from government, Mabunda was coy: “I’ve been advised by my Counsel… not to respond to any of your questions at this stage as they constitute a greater part of the pending DFFE investigation. The matter is sub judice at the moment.” 

Landowner consent

After the department yanked Karpowership’s 30A exemption in August 2020, the company had no choice but to follow the long, tedious process of applying for an environmental permit.

But it was running out of time to meet the November 2020 deadline to submit its RMI4P bid.

On 17 September, DFFE officials met with Karpowership and its consultants to outline the standard process it would now have to follow to get environmental authorisation for its proposed projects in the ports of Richards Bay, Coega and Saldanha. 

The officials reminded the consultants that one of the documents it would need was written permission from the landowner – in this case TNPA.

Although the powerships will only be moored in Transnet’s harbours, there is other infrastructure – pipelines, pylons, etc – that will need to be built on Transnet land. And without big-picture planning, projects like these could disrupt traffic or hamper port expansion plans.

Faced with this roadblock, Karpowership tried a different tactic. 

On 5 October 2020, Jason van der Poel, Karpowership’s attorney from law firm Webber Wentzel, produced a legal opinion arguing that the company did not need landowner consent because it was a “strategic integrated project”, and therefore exempt.

Section 39(1) of Nema says that anyone wanting an environmental permit must first get the landowner’s consent to carry out their proposed project. One of the few exceptions is if it is a strategic integrated project, a gazetted list of projects deemed to be in the national interest.

Because the RMI4P is such a project, Van der Poel argued that any project applying to the RMI4P should be deemed one too. 

The department’s response was a firm “no”. 

Sabelo Malaza, the department’s chief director of integrated environmental authorisations, responded that he had “noted” Webber Wentzel’s legal opinion, but that Karpowership “must, as advised… submit signed landowner consent”. 

The most Transnet was willing to provide was a letter giving Karpowership permission to carry out its environmental impact assessments, although it was careful to remind Karpowership that this should not be construed as Transnet giving the go-ahead for the projects.

Another golden loophole

What happened next is now the subject of a legal review.

There is a simple rule when applying for an environmental permit: first make sure you get permission from the owner of the land to carry out your project. Nema regulation 16(1), which imposes the obligation to attach landowner consent to an EIA application, is so unremarkable that it does not bother to spell out what the department should do if a company turns up without landowner consent.

Instead, officials are simply told to “check whether the application… is properly completed” and accompanied by the required documents. 

When Karpowership submitted its application on 8 October 2020, it did not have landowner consent. Instead of being turned away, it was simply warned to submit landowner consent when it came back with its final environmental scoping report.

“Failure to provide the above mentioned information will result in your application for Environmental Authorisation being refused,” an official from Malaza’s department warned in an email.

Asked why the department had not rejected Karpowership’s application upfront, the department said that the regulations do not give any explicit instruction to reject an application that is incomplete.

“It is only after a detailed evaluation is done that the failure to submit critical documents will be assessed,” Modise noted.

But when Karpowership came back with its final scoping reports in mid-November, still without landowner consent, the department let it slide. 

“Following a review… the findings were such that the Department can accept the final Scoping Reports with particular conditions,” the department told us.

One of those conditions was that Karpowership would now need to submit landowner consent with its final environmental impact assessment reports in April. 

The ruling was a stroke of luck for Karpowership, which had just put up R183-million in bid guarantees. If it turned out that its bids were non-compliant it could be forced to forfeit that money to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.

But other bidders for the RMI4P were more risk-averse. One rival bidder, who spoke to amaBhungane on condition of anonymity, said his firm had decided not to submit an RMI4P bid because they knew they could not obtain Transnet consent beforehand. A second company, that did submit a bid, said it opted for a more expensive fuel source because the same landowner consent issue would hamper its ability to import LNG.  

The leeway from DFFE was just long enough for Karpowership: in March, it was selected as an RMI4P preferred bidder. Its projects were now undeniably strategic integrated projects, like the RMI4P itself.

This means that to get its EIA approval from the DFFE, Karpowership no longer needs landowner consent. It does, however, still need landowner consent from TNPA as a separate requirement of the tender.

DFFE is emphatic that it did not give Karpowership special treatment, but has commissioned an external legal review: “In light of the numerous queries received on this issue the [department]… wanted to provide assurance that all relevant legislative provisions were correctly interpreted and implemented,” Modise said.

The clock is ticking

Karpowership is now waiting to find out if the department will approve its final EIA reports for its projects in the ports of Richards Bay, Coega and Saldanha. 

It is facing an uphill battle: a complaint has been laid against Triplo4’s Plomp, Karpowership’s chief environmental consultant, alleging that she ran a sub-standard public participation process and produced biased and flawed environmental reports. The Environmental Assessment Practitioners Association of South Africa, the regulatory body for environmental consultants, is reviewing the complaint and has yet to say whether it will investigate.

DFFE has also received a formal complaint about the EIA at Saldanha over Triplo4’s failure to conduct a study on the powerships’ impact on sea-life, which could have knock-on effects for the local fishing industry. 

DFFE’s Modise, meanwhile, told amaBhungane that the Green Scorpions’ investigation is being prioritised: “The relevant findings will be taken into consideration prior to the [EIA] application being finalised. The EIA application is expected to be finalised by not later than 25 June 2021.”

Karpowership has, via its bid bonds, placed a R183-million bet that it can clinch the environmental permits it needs before the end of July. The odds are stacked against it. But it appears serenely confident that it can clear any regulatory hurdle. 

Based on the evidence, it has reason to be confident: government officials have made concessions at every stage. And now that it is deemed to be in the “national interest” for Karpowership’s bid to succeed, is anyone going to stand in its way? DM

Gallery
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All Comments 35

  • When you have a collusion of politicians, lawyers, accounting firms and other vested interest parties working hand in hand, ostensibly to promote the ‘national interest’ (as they did with state capture!) … they can be “serenely confident” of clearing all hurdles ! When you spend R183 million (of whose money? state capture? ) and do not have any guarantees of its success … you are a major gambler of extraordinary means ! The next generation of ‘capturers’ are still hiding in plain sight in our ‘establishments’, despite what the Zondo commission is uncovering about the last attempt ! A looting continua !!

  • In respect of the required PP (public participation) Hantie Plomp should be able to provide proper info on the meetings she conducted to ensure transparency and public trust.
    I currently live in one of the places that will be affected by the pirate ships. Hardly any people are aware of this anticipated power generating move on their door step.
    Apart from this, here is another cANCerous double speak. ‘We were misled’ = We drink Blue Label whisky with the money we scored.

  • Does anyone really believe that the ‘Green Scorpions’ will give an unbiased and independent and totally transparent evaluation of the situation with gwede and the whole anc looking over their shoulder?

  • For once I am grateful that we work on Africa time. If we didn’t, those ships would already be moored in the listed harbours and we would be suffering the consequences.
    Once again, thanks to the media for exposing the next state capture project. We all need to keep up the pressure but I am afraid that I agree with my fellow commentators that this will be expedited at all costs (to us and the environment).
    Remember, there is an election coming up shortly and the ANC don’t want their electorate to discover that they are incompetent and cannot even maintain the electricity supply to those thousands that have been added to the grid since 1994.
    HOW SAD!

    • Time that DM started to realize that the DA are the good guys! What does Mark Heywood say about that? Mark, lets have your take, soonest.

      • Hear Hear! The DA has resurrected Kouga, taken it out of the hands of the mob-led ANC’s disgusting people…disgusting!!
        But, the masses know not what the NDR is, have mostly never heard of it/never been allowed to be told of it, and in the paths of unrighteousness have been treated a la classic Judas – they have been sold! They have been betrayed. Treachery reigns! The mob-led ANC are traitors. Traitors to the nation – to any nation this is treasonous! Disgusting people!

  • The most obvious question is “if this is for emergency power, why a 20 year contract”? Does the ANC plan to sabotage the generating capacity for ever? Plus as another respondent noted it’s a case of “round up the usual suspects” , lots of familiar surnames cropping up…

  • I pray the Green Scorpions make the right decision and stop this project. Gas is wrong – we’re moving in the opposite direction to what is critical to deal with global warming. The southern hemisphere is blessed with wind and sun – let’s use them to our advantage and get rid of our fossil Minister. Let’s also kill the narrative from the fossil fuel industry that investment in gas projects is the solution in the southern hemisphere. Stop preying on us for profit.

  • How can submitting a bid cost R183 million? Not sure what an EIA practitioner charges for a sloppy (probably putting it mildly) report, I can imagine what the legal guys charge per half-minute of their precious time, but still – R183 million?!? Without one of those ships having set sail or any pipeline being installed yet? Reeks like the fish these floating power stations are going to kill…..

  • This deal will never happen. It stinks of corruption.
    Just like the nuclear deal this will be challenged and tied up in court for years until it is eventually scrapped.

    If Gwede have ANY brains, he will move this funds to install Solar and wind farms.
    But I’m not holding my breath. Gwede is thick on a good day and on a bad day I am surprised that he remembers to breathe.

  • Gas-fired power ships? When there are other, safer, renewable options available? Now we have the Green Scorpions investigating? They only start investigating when the independent media – thank you Maverick – expose the stench of corruption. God help us all if this deal goes through & one of those ships explodes in our harbour! Just a thought: is the current crisis of rolling blackouts for 2 weeks and counting a manufactured emergency to push through the Karpowership deal at any and all costs?

    • Your last observation (question) is spot on ! Just like the the ‘motivation’ for ‘life saving’ (hospitals – which have ’emergency’ set ups anyway !) submissions made with the onset of the pandemic ! THEY always do it for ‘altruistic’ reasons – never to line their pockets !

      • I believe that the current rolling blackouts are linked to the multiple examples of corrupt ‘contracts’ exposed by the Eskom Files. In a word, sabotage.

    • The quick answer is plenty. And the instructions come from very high up and are implemented by the union people. The pressure on the CEO and COO will be unrelenting.

  • Can DM shine a light on the following suppliers to the powerships projects:
    Bankers
    Lenders
    Insurers
    Lawyers
    Auditors
    Environmental Consultants
    Consulting Engineers
    Major engineering suppliers
    (and future business rescue practitioner)?

    All of above are presumably very proud to be associated with the project and would love to share this. We all also want to know.

  • What a rogues gallery: Toxic Tina,Mabunda,Plomp and Mantashe. Eish. Throw in 35%shateholders with ZERO energy experience. And i would like to examine the EIA for Coega esp the part where local fishing communities and businesses gave support to this monstrosity. And right alongside a tecently declared Marine Protected Area. Kindly take your Turkish Bath in your iwn backyard mr.Mantashe.

  • And ol’ Gwede admits on the presser following Cyrils announcement “that he needed his arm twisted” …watch it on You Tube ….watch this space

  • Like many South Africans, my sense of smell has now become so refined that I can sniff the sweet rot of corruption a mile away… So I ask the question – with CR’s latest announcement why can’t 12 local companies each install 100MW power generation for their own use and push the rest into the grid, which would be cheaper, faster, mostly greener and do away with ridiculous 20 year power ship deals? Oh sorry… I forgot that there will be very little GRAVY!