Choppy waters: More coastal surveys in the pipeline for South Africa

Protestors at the Waterfront waiting the arrival of the Amazon Warrior . They are against the planned Shell seismic survey for oil and gas in the ocean on November 21, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. It is reported that Shell has announced that it will carry out a three-dimensional seismic survey in search of oil and gas deposits from Morgan Bay to Port St Johns off the Wild Coast. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Almost the entire area of our offshore territory is under lease for oil and gas exploration, a conservationist says.

Shell’s planned seismic survey off the Wild Coast, which is due to begin on 1 December, is just one of several offshore exploration projects under way or planned along the coast of South Africa.

No less than four other explorations are in the pipeline or have already begun, research by DM168 has revealed.

The revelation comes as protests take place across the country against the proposed Shell exploration. Hundreds of activists demonstrated against the arrival of the Amazon Warrior – the ship that will do the surveying – at the Cape Town harbour on 21 November.

The protests, which include calls to boycott Shell petrol stations, are set to continue until the survey is abandoned.

A petition – initially addressed to Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy and subsequently addressed to Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe – to withdraw approval for the Shell seismic survey had attracted 291,000 signatures by 26 November.

Creecy has distanced herself and her department from the fallout. Spokesperson Albi Modise said Creecy and the Environment Department had not been involved in the decision-making process for the proposed exploration activities. He said the application process had been finalised before the One Environmental System, which serves to integrate different aspects of the environmental management of mining activities, came into effect in December 2014.

He said the authorisation had been granted in 2014 under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act by the then minister of the Department of Mineral Resources, Advocate Ngoako Ramatlhodi.

However, Gwede Mantashe, the current Department of Mineral Resources and Energy minister, has declined to comment on the matter. The minister said he would not contribute to “a negative story” by DM168.  “You want me to contribute to your negative story about me? … Bhalani into zenu [which, loosely translated, means ‘write your own things’].”

Oceans Not Oil founder Janet Solomon said, if the government was doing nothing to stop the survey, they would be left with no option but to go to court.

Shell has appointed Shearwater Geo-Services to conduct the survey between Port St Johns and Morgan Bay over four to five months, covering 6,011km² of ocean surface. The survey area is more than 20km off the coast at its closest point and in water depths that range between 700m and 3km. The survey will be conducted by underwater seismic airgun blasts. Scientists and environmentalists have raised concerns about the “disastrous effects” of these assessments on marine organisms, animals and the environment.

Other planned exploration projects are:

CGG Services SAS has applied to the Petroleum Agency SA for a reconnaissance permit to undertake a speculative 3D survey of the area between Gqeberha and Plettenberg Bay. According to SLR Consulting, which has been appointed to undertake the required environmental management plan process for the application, the proposed survey would be up to 3,500km² in extent in an area of interest stretching roughly from Gqeberha to a point about 120km southeast of Plettenberg Bay. It is anticipated that the survey will take up to five months to complete, with January next year as the earliest possible commencement date.

In 2013, Sasol won the right to explore the block off South Africa’s southeast coast from the Petroleum Agency and, in 2014, Italian oil corporation Eni SpA became the operator of the ER236 exploration permit off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal from Richards Bay to Scottburgh with a 40% stake. In August 2019, the two companies were granted environmental authorisation to drill for hydrocarbons in the middle of seven marine protected areas. However, last month, Eni reportedly pulled out over concerns about the technical challenges of drilling in deep waters as well as delays in the passing of the Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill, South Africa’s draft oil exploration and production law.

Environmentalists warn that the high-noise blasting of sonar cannons underwater for seismic testing is a threat to whales, dolphins, fish and other marine life. (Graphic: Jocelyn Adamson)

Spectrum has applied to the Petroleum Agency for a seismic reconnaissance permit to undertake a multiclient speculative 2D seismic survey in the Orange Basin, off the West Coast. The proposed survey area covers a single target area between the Namibian border in the north up to a point about 80km southwest of Cape Point. Should the permit be awarded, the survey is expected to start in December, and will run for five months.

Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) has applied for a reconnaissance permit for an area that extends between the 15km buffer line and 250km offshore from Richards Bay to Mossel Bay. The proposed 2D survey will cover two target areas with a total length of between 2,000 and 8,000km and the proposed 3D survey will cover three target areas with a total extent of between 3,000 and 10,000km.

You cannot bring about economic recovery by threatening our livelihoods and the ecology of the ocean. You cannot solve one problem by creating a new problem. Put the lives of people before profits. Withdraw the licence given to Shell for preparing to mine in the ocean.

Speaking to DM168, Dr Judy Mann, a conservation strategist at the SA Association for Marine Biological Research’s Oceanographic Research Institute, said almost the entire area of South Africa’s offshore territory is under lease for oil and gas exploration.

“Internationally, seismic surveys have been demonstrated to have negative impacts on a range of marine organisms, from smaller creatures that live in sediments or as plankton, and larger animals such as fishes and marine mammals. Marine mammals, in particular, appear to be the most impacted by seismic surveys because of their reliance on sound for communication, to find food and to navigate,” she said.

Mann said many of the marine and coastal habitats off South Africa’s east coast are unique and support a high ecological diversity, much of which is not found elsewhere. In addition, deep-water habitats (those below 500m) are largely unexplored ecologically.

She said although research had shown that the impacts on fish were likely to be localised, seismic surveys may have serious consequences for the health of fisheries.

Port St Johns resident Sinegugu Zikulu said the government was not taking its consultation with local people seriously.

“Whenever the government wants to do something huge that will impact the lives of the people, they repeatedly refuse to hear the voices of those communities directly [affected]. If oil or gas is found here, that will impact the lives of this community and will benefit the shareholders of Shell,” he said.

“If there is an oil rig offshore, there are going to be oil spills and that means people who are dependent on marine resources will have no livelihood. “The government is good at cutting deals with big corporations and undermining the constitutional rights of these locals, throwing them to the dogs, cutting deals that are likely to give the government more revenue.”

He said the priority should be the livelihood of communities and marine life.  

“The immediate impact will be the disturbance of the breeding of marine animals. Whales and dolphins communicate through sound and, if there is going to be blasting, that will have a negative impact and cause damage in terms of reproduction,” he said.

Zikulu said Shell was going ahead with this barely a month after COP26 – “Does the world need more emission of carbon dioxide? The answer is no.”

“On the Wild Coast, we have agriculture and tourism as investment and economic activities of choice, so by allowing the exploration of oil and gas that may lead to the pollution of our coastline and also to the detriment of the marine living resources, we are destroying the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said.

“In Pondoland, we are indigenous people. The declarations for indigenous rights are there in the UN and South Africa subscribes to those. This is impacting us directly and is taking away our right to a safe environment and self-determination,” Zikulu said.

Chris Wright, the chair of Coastwatch KwaZulu-Natal, said they were extremely concerned about the commencement of seismic surveys along the coastline.

“South Africa has just returned from COP26 in Glasgow where we have committed to significantly reducing our emissions as part of our Nationally Determined Contributions; however, it appears that not all government departments are on the same page [and are in a] rush to absolve themselves of any involvement, including Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, who has stated that she had no involvement or input with this authorisation process,” he said.

Wright said it was once again the environment that would suffer, whether from seismic surveys now or from oil and gas extraction in an area under the influence of one of the fastest flowing currents in the world.

“Our Wild Coast will be irreparably altered for short-term gains when we should be focusing on long-term goals, such as renewable energy,” he said.

Amadiba Crisis Committee’s Nonhle Mbuthuma said the high-noise blasting was a direct threat to all kinds of marine life as well as to the livelihoods of communities along the Wild Coast and KwaZulu-Natal that use the ocean to put food on the table.

“If Shell finds oil or gas, drilling the seabed threatens to bring a host of toxic substances into the water, like mercury, lead, arsenic and barium. These toxins are devastating for the health of fish and ocean wildlife and all who live on the coast,” she said.

Mbuthuma said the ocean was also part of their spiritual life.

“For over two decades, the coastal Amadiba community has fought against opencast mining on our land. Now we also must fight against the mining of the ocean.

“Indigenous people along the whole coast of Africa must have the right to say no to everything that threatens their livelihood.”

She said further expansion of the fossil fuel economy would not solve the country’s economic crisis.

“You cannot bring about economic recovery by threatening our livelihoods and the ecology of the ocean. You cannot solve one problem by creating a new problem. Put the lives of people before profits. Withdraw the licence given to Shell for preparing to mine in the ocean.”

Lizelle Maurice, the executive director of the Border Kei Chamber of Business that represents more than 500 businesses, has written an open letter to Mantashe in which she raises concerns about the survey and demands a halt to the planned seismic blasting.

She claims the engagement process that was part of the Environmental Management Programme was flawed.

“There was very limited engagement which took place and the list of parties who were contacted seem to be based outside of our region, which begs the question why members of our region … were marginalised in this process,” she said.

Concerns raised by the chamber from an environmental and economic standpoint include acoustic pollution in the ocean; a drop in commercial fishing levels; the impact on at least 55 marine species, including several endangered species of whales, 20 commercially valuable species of fish and the loggerhead turtles that will be on their annual migration at the time of the survey.

She said they had requested an immediate halt in the seismic surveying until it could be proven that there would be no negative impact on the environment and livelihoods of people in the fishing and tourism industries, among others.

She requested that the Environment Department intervene in this matter and apply the precautionary principle as reflected in the National Environmental Management Act (Nema Principles) and to insist that the survey company considers alternative technologies that are not as invasive as airguns.

“This process needs to be transparent and open to all parties. Australia and the US have stopped this type of exploration in the past because of the negative impact, so our question is why South Africa allowed this process to be approved,” asked Maurice.

Matalala Primary Fishing Cooperative member Ndumiso Kawu said Shell’s exploration was a “war directed to the communities and it’s high time for the government to listen to the poor people and save the planet”.

Port St Johns resident Zakhele Nkamisa said there would be no fish left in the ocean for them after the survey: “We were given fishing rights by the government and now they want to open mining in the same ocean where we are supposed to be fishing.”

Resident Lwandiso Gxala said: “This is wrong and it will kill our environment and businesses. As people of the Wild Coast … we need to protect [the area] against Shell, who wants to destroy it.”

Dillon Harvey, owner of the Kraal Eco Lodge at Mpande Beach in Port St Johns, said Wild Coast residents would not benefit from the gas or oil.

“This has nothing for the residents of the Wild Coast. All the survey will do is kill the fish, not to mention the damage it will have on the whales, dolphins and the reef fish. The survey is a huge loss for the residents of the Wild Coast. [No one benefits] except the government and Shell,” Harvey said.

The Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA (Wessa) said it was unreservedly opposed to 3D seismic surveys for oil and gas in South Africa’s coastal waters.

New scientific research on the impact of seismic activity on marine ecosystems points to risks “far beyond” those considered in the approval of the current seismic survey permits, Wessa said in a statement this week.

It demanded that South Africa comply with the Sustainable Development Goals, to which it is a signatory, “especially goal 14 on Life Below Water which is explicit about impacts of seismic exploration noise, and apply the precautionary principle by refusing to permit any and all seismic surveys with immediate effect in order to avoid unacceptable ecological degradation of our offshore coastal resources”. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

Absa OBP

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 4

  • NO to any exploration ,NO to any surveys on the south african coast.Our goverment is selling to the highest bidder ,and they are selling our South Africa for the benefit of their back pockets.We are not fodder ,us middle class and poor ,instead of doing everything to create a really new South Africa for all , our goverment suck up to big bussiness and mining giants,developers and in the process destroy what is unique to South Africa and what makes it the most beautiful place in the world.Words cannot describe there cowardice and treason, just for money.Funny how communist ideology feeds off capitalistic practices.

  • Using photographs like this to accompany this kind of article. Very disappointed to see this trend in DM. Protests against climate change and environmental destruction are not dominated by young white people.

  • Use ICMA (The Integrated Coastal Management Act) that is the killer app. The EAC used it to stop cofferdam mining in the sea at Alexander Bay. Barbara is putting the ball in Gwede’s court because she is scared. Once it goes into the sea, she is actually the one with the power in law. The problem is Gwede in the one with the power in politics.

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted