Seismic skirmishes: Murky permitting and scientific debate while Big Oil eyes South African waters

Seismic skirmishes: Murky permitting and scientific debate while Big Oil eyes South African waters
Protesters demonstrate at the Waterfront in Cape Town on Sunday, 21 November 2021, against Shell’s offshore exploration for oil and gas along the Wild Coast. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Activists celebrated the court interdict in late December which brought a temporary halt to oil major Shell’s seismic survey off the Wild Coast. That is likely to prove to be the opening shot in a protracted struggle as South Africa, which has an active and vocal conservation community, echoes loudly on the exploration sonar of Big Oil.

Adding fuel to the fire is scientific debate on the issue: there is no consensus in the peer-reviewed literature on the impact of such surveys on marine life, and a lot that remains unknown. But one thing is clear: permitting for such activities is shrouded in smog, raising transparency concerns about a process driven by the opaque Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE).  

The stakes are whale-sized. On one hand, there is a potential investment windfall into an economy that desperately needs one. On the other are mounting environmental concerns that go beyond seismic testing itself. 

The link between fossil fuel usage and climate change — on which there is general scientific agreement — is sounding a death knell for the hydrocarbon industry as the global economy embraces green energy. Finance for new oil and gas projects is becoming increasingly difficult, raising the prospect that South Africa’s potential deep-water oil and gas deposits could become “stranded assets”.  

And the history of Big Oil in Africa is strewn with kleptocracies, conflict and impoverished populations — witness Angola and Nigeria. Throw the ANC into the mix and what could go wrong? The signs in this regard are already ominous. As Rob Rose has pointed out in the Financial Mail, a shareholder in Shell’s downstream business made a R15-million donation to the ANC.  

Against this backdrop, South Africa looks set to be the scene for a potential wave of seismic activity. Global energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie, in a recent report looking at expected trends in the global oil industry for 2022, noted that on the exploration front: “Deepwater plays with highly productive reservoirs will be prioritised, including giant prospects in Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, Namibia and South Africa.” 

The next stage of South Africa’s unfolding seismic saga will be a planned survey to be conducted by Australian explorer Searcher Seismic in Western Cape waters that is set to begin as early as Saturday, 15 January. An online petition against the survey has been started by We Are South Africans, which describes itself as a civil society movement.   

On 13 January the Legal Resources Centre and Richard Spoor Inc filed a letter of demand to Searcher Seismic demanding that it suspend the commencement of seismic blasting or face legal proceedings in court.  

In response to queries, Searcher Seismic said the following by email:  

“Searcher’s application for a Reconnaissance Permit in terms of Section 74 of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (No. 28 of 2002) (MPRDA) was accepted by the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) on 18th May 2021.”  

It also said that a “comprehensive Environmental Management Plan” had been completed — a process not regarded as robust as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).  

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) — part of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa — said in an advisory focused on the Shell seismic survey that:  

“No seismic survey should be conducted in South African waters without a preceding comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report based on the latest science. EMPs should never be considered a valid and legitimate substitute for comprehensive EIA reports.” The company also said that it had undertaken the required consultation with communities, presumably along the coast. 

“Community awareness and consultations have been exhaustive and in full compliance with PASA requirements. A full list of the consultations undertaken during 2021 with fisheries, local communities and the South African public is available from PASA,” Searcher Seismic said in its emailed reply to DM168. 

Attempts by DM168 to get the full list of community consultations from either the company or PASA have been unsuccessful. PASA did not respond to emails and no one answered the phone there when DM168 called. When we asked the company if it could provide the list, it did not respond. The DMRE pointedly also did not respond to a request for this list, which should be publicly available and easy for the regulator to dig up.

In their letter of demand, the Legal Resources Centre and Richard Spoor state: “We are instructed that no meaningful consultation process took place”. It also raises question marks around the environmental authorisation. 

This raises red flags around transparency and the extent of “community consultation” – an area where extractive projects in the mining sector conducted with DMRE authorisation have been found wanting before. Virtually no one had heard of the survey it seems before the petition was launched and Business Maverick reported on it. “Public notice” was given on 15 December, a period when South African society was closing shop for the holidays. 

It also seems that the DMRE – which is ultimately responsible here – is being uncharacteristically efficient and hasty when it comes to permitting oil exploration. The backlog for applications for mining and exploration rights was in the thousands at last count. And the department has yet to replace the useless SAMRAD application system with an effective, transparent mining cadastre.  

Seismic surveys “produce high-energy, low-frequency, short-duration sounds aimed at detecting the presence of petroleum and gas deposits below the seafloor,” according to one study on the issue .

That of course sounds bad, not least because sound travels faster and covers greater distances in the water than it does in the air. And animals certainly react to noise. 

But the science on the matter is not as cut and dried as many recent news reports have suggested. Having said that, there are legitimate conservation concerns, including the dearth of studies on the potential consequences of seismic activity for marine ecosystems in South African waters. 

“… no formal research on the effects of seismic surveys have been conducted in South Africa and the exact effects on the marine environment – and by default the people who depend on marine resources – remains largely unknown,” the SAGE advisory noted.

Studies into the matter have been conducted in other waters, and the conclusions pulled up from the depths have been mixed. 

The SAGE advisory refers to a number of peer-reviewed studies, noting that: 

“Seismic surveys have been implicated in altering the behaviour of marine life such as whales and dolphins attempting to escape airgun surveys. Several other disruptions to marine biota have been documented, including altering penguin behaviour and decimating larval krill populations, which are key prey for species such as humpback whales. In controlled experiments, negative impacts on zooplankton have been documented more than 1 km from the sound source; a significantly wider reach than the predicted 10 m-impact range.” 

Some of the conclusions, while worrying, are not exactly apocalyptic. One of the studies cited by SAGE said in its summary that “… during a seismic survey, a proportion of the population of harbour porpoises was displaced by 5–10 km (although the level of displacement declined through the 10-day survey), while harbour porpoises remaining in the impact area reduced their vocal behaviour by 15% for 10 days.”

That suggests disturbance and changes in behaviour, but hardly conjures up grotesque images of pods of dead Flippers – and in fairness to the SAGE advisory, it did stick to the facts here. But the public image that is emerging is one of dead and tortured marine life and barren seas. 

The threat to larval krill – babies at the bottom of the marine food chain – is far more alarming. The study cited in the SAGE advisory on that score says: “Although no adult krill were present (during the experiments), all larval krill were killed after air gun passage. There is a significant and unacknowledged potential for ocean ecosystem function and productivity to be negatively impacted by present seismic technology.”

Other studies – in peer-reviewed papers by respected scientists – have found minimal or no impact on marine wildlife from seismic surveys, though some have been openly funded by the oil industry – a point sure to raise eye-brows. These include a five-year project in Australian waters – the Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys, or BRAHSS project – which it acknowledges on its web site was funded in part by the international oil and gas industry’s E&P Sound and Marine Life Joint Industry Programme.

One 2017 study from the project “found no evidence of gross changes in behaviour in migrating humpback whales in response to a full commercial seismic array.” 

“For a change in behaviour to be considered biologically significant, it should have an effect on one or more life functions (e.g. migration, survival, mating), affecting individual vital rates (e.g. maturation, reproduction) and ultimately leading to population effects. For example, an animal that is under stress can exhibit behaviours outside their normal behavioural repertoire and/or cease to exhibit typical behaviours. If this stressor is chronic, then the animal is likely to have a reduced likelihood of surviving and reproducing. In this study, no abnormal behaviours, such as instances of a female separating from her calf or sustained bouts of high energy surface behaviours (which are considered abnormal behaviour indicative of a stress response in humpback whales), were observed,” the study said.

Moving from marine mammals to fish, a study conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and published in 2021 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA found seismic surveys had no impact on commercially valuable species of fish.

“Our results may allay, to some extent, the concerns frequently voiced by commercial fishing stakeholders over the negative impacts of seismic surveys on catches of demersal fishes in this environment, at least for the suite of site-attached species that were the subject of our study,” it said. 

AIMS Principal Researcher and project leader Dr Mark Meekan told DM168 in a telephone interview that the study used an actual seismic vessel – a first in such studies – and “a non-destructive tool to sample the environment. We used remote, underwater video systems.” 

He said this provided a penetrating window into biomass and behaviour, while noting that the study’s conclusions related to bottom-living fish fauna in a specific environment. 

This highlights the need among other things for research in this area to be conducted in South African waters. 

On other fronts, scientists and the industry are developing technologies that would gather the kind of data gleaned from seismic surveys without the potential for damage. 

“Marine vibrators (“vibroseis”) produce sounds that are nonimpulsive and more narrow band in frequency than typical seismic air guns, potentially removing some of the more harmful acoustic attributes. Several companies are developing prototype vibroseis technology to be mounted on submarine vehicles that would roam the seafloor. These vehicles will use hydraulic systems to generate force waves that penetrate the sediments and deliver the required data while avoiding im-pacts on animals in the water column,” notes one 2021 study in the journal Science, which raises concerns about the impacts of seismic surveys.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s seismic surveys and the permitting behind them clearly need to be subjected to much more scrutiny, and a lot more research needs to be done. Seismic scraps are getting underway, and coastal communities and the wider public need a clearer view of what is going on beneath the waves. 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.

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  • jcdville stormers says:

    Civil society with dedicated environmental legal fundis will have to tackle this head on.This so called goverment is selling our country to the highest overseas bidders, raping our environment and oceans,all for a few dollars in the back pocket.No job creating, no vision for sustainability ,only socialist and communist ideology, while benefiting from capitalism.

  • Alan Cargill says:

    The real question is, should we be digging up more hydrocarbons or should we be heading for renewables?

    SA has no meaningful gas infrastructure. We should certainly be moving away from Sasol GTL. But we have lots of RE in wind and solar which is being underutilised and under-developed. If we do find viable gas deposits, they would largely be destined for US, Europe and Asia, to countries which themselves are trying to switch to RE. Having said all that, gas is a major part of the energy mix in the world and will remain so for at least another 2 decades. The gas from any sizable SA deposits would only be added to the market in about 10 years from now, and likely produce for about 20 years.

  • Michael Hennessy says:

    Ed, you state that “a comprehensive Environmental Management Plan had been completed — a process not regarded as robust as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).” You repeat this when you quote SAGE as saying “No seismic survey should be conducted in South African waters without a preceding comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report based on the latest science. EMPs should never be considered a valid and legitimate substitute for comprehensive EIA reports.” You are clearly ignorant as to the environmental authorisation process, which requires an EIA to be conducted to determine the environmental impacts before the EMP, which sets out the management plan, can be approved. I suggest you refer again to the National Environmental Management Act, which does not require zero harm, but manageable harm. By the way, you also mention that krill will be “decimated”: that is to reduce the population by 10%. Is that so catastrophic?

    • Pieter Van der Walt says:

      In modern usage decimate means “kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of: ” according to Oxford Dictionary. (The one in ten is a historic meaning.) Which meaning applies here?

  • Change is Good says:

    Seismic surveys and the permits and costs involved, needs to be researched and hopefully, we will read about this on The Daily Maverick.
    I suggest that the seismic surveys are purely an old revenue stream for oil corporates and kick backs for politicians in less developed countries.
    Shell is already exploring and investing in renewables. Wind, solar, hydrogen and more. Of course this is all happening in developed countries, where the citizens are allowed to be innovative and their environment is not being sold down the river by political interests.
    So, Shell, here is the challenge, where are your renewable energy developments for South Africa.
    I am sure there would be suitable future profits should you go this route.

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