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Seismic surveys: Shell’s gone — but another devil has arrived

Illustrative image | Sources: Unsplash / Gabriel Dizzi | Vecteezy

An Australian company is conducting seismic surveys on the West Coast, but NGOs have challenged the move.

Shell has gone to hell — or on a break until it figures out how to proceed with its planned seismic surveys off the Wild Coast. But while environmentalists were focused on booting out the global oil and gas company, another seismic survey programme took off this weekend.

The latest bout of seismic activity is being conducted by Australian geological data company Searcher Geodata, across the West Coast of South Africa, stretching from Cape Columbine, about 170km north of Cape Town, to Namibia.

The area in which the exploration is taking place is called the Orange Basin. Searcher Geodata is expected to conduct its survey along about 10,000km2 of the about 22,000km2 of the Reconnaissance Permit application area. The company will conduct 2D and/or 3D seismic survey programmes between the Orange River mouth (a Ramsar site)  and Cape Columbine. SLR South Africa has been appointed the independent environmental assessment practitioner for the seismic programme, with the Petroleum Agency of South Africa granting Searcher the permit.

The areas of interest for Searcher Geodata in the seismic survey programme, between Orange River Mouth and Cape Columbine. (Source: Google Maps)

Searcher Geodata has been granted exploration rights in an area where 11 rights holders (made up of 16 other companies) have exploration rights. These rights holders include:

  1. Kosmos Energy/Shell/OK Energy
  2. PetroSA
  3. Ricocure/Azinam/Africa Oil
  4. Sezigyn
  5. Sunbird/PetroSA
  6. Sungu Sungu
  7. Total Energies/Seizgyn
  8. Total Energies/Impact Africa
  9. Total Energies/Shell/PetroSA
  10. Thombo Petroleum/Main Street/Panoro/Azinam
  11. Tosaco Energy

Continued mining activity along the coast and in oceans has been discouraged by a group of scientists under the Scientific Advisory Group of Emergencies who say that there is a chance of real harm to marine life should seismic activity continue, particularly in the case of Shell, though the case is relevant to the Searcher Geodata as well.

Research from the Georgia Coastal Research Council has previously found that species likely to be affected by seismic survey activity mainly include several species of whales and sea turtles. Physiological responses to the blasting can include increased stress hormone levels and decreased immune responses. Marine animals close to the surveying are most likely to experience physical injury, with those further from the activity likely to undergo increased behavioural and physiological stress responses.

“Given a relative dearth of evidence on the impact of seismic surveys on marine life in South African waters, coupled with the uncertainties about the harm that may be suffered if Shell’s survey is permitted to resume, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for refusing or postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. Instead, a precautionary approach is warranted,” the scientists said. The advisory group said that some of the methods used in the surveys were outdated and new technologies with less environmental impact should be taken up.

According to the Coastal Justice Network, 30 small-scale fishing communities that have longstanding roots along the coastline were not consulted in the process of granting the Australian company environmental rights. Some of these communities include indigenous and traditional fishing communities. For others, it is a livelihood, while for some it is a means of food security.

In response to the activity that Searcher Geodata is conducting, the fishing communities and their lawyers sent a letter to Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe. In the letter, the fishing communities air their grievances and concerns over the approval of the application by Searcher Geodata.

“They have not bothered to consult us and engage us on this proposed survey or explain it to us. We were not provided with any information about it. In addition, we are informed by support organisations that they have not undertaken an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and obtained environmental authorisation in terms of NEMA (National Environmental Management Act) 107 of 1998 as required,” the small-scale fishers stated.

NEMA 107 of 1998 states in its preamble,

“…The State must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the social, economic and environmental rights of everyone and strive to meet the basic needs of previously disadvantaged communities; inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources, and the resultant poverty, are among the important causes as well as the results of environmentally harmful practices…”

The document further states “… that the disturbance of landscapes and sites that constitute the nation’s cultural heritage is avoided, or where it cannot be altogether avoided, is minimised and remedied…”

The recent ruling, in which Makhanda High Court Judge Gerald Bloem granted an interdict for oil and petrol company Shell to immediately stop the seismic survey along the Wild Coast unless and until environmental authorisation had been conducted in line with NEMA of 1998, was hailed as a precedent for other oil and gas companies seeking to conduct any petroleum exploration in South African waters.

Searcher Geodata has followed in the footsteps of how multinational Shell went about its business and activists hope that the law will respond to the Australian company in the same way it did with Shell.

Dr Dylan McGarry, senior researcher at the Environmental Learning Research Centre (ELRC), at Rhodes University and a member of the Coastal Justice Network, told Daily Maverick that the environmental report for the granting of Searcher Geodata’s permit report was made available to a select few. The more than 900-page report was made available online for only 24 hours.

“It’s really fishy for us,” Dr McGarry said. “They are saying that they’re going to stay away from where small-scale fishers fish… The one major thing is there is an existential threat to small-scale fishing communities associated with seismic surveys and oil and gas exploration. The seismic survey is just a gateway to further destructive extractivism that could destroy marine cultural heritage which particularly is an aspect of Cape Malay heritage.”

“It could potentially have a direct impact on specific species that are at the core of livelihoods for a very vulnerable sector that has food security impact. The small-scale fishers rely on snoek and they rely on rock lobster for their income and livelihood. But also, snoek is deeply connected to cultural practices,” McGarry said.

The researcher said that while exploration and extractivism had been touted as economically beneficial to affected communities, history had shown that this had not been the case. Often communities were left poorer, with a further damaged environment and poorer-grade natural resources, such as contaminated water.

As Searcher Geodata plans to conduct its programme until next month, it is unclear whether it will get to complete its project.

The Coastal Justice Network will take the company and the DMRE to court over the blasting in the hope the company will receive the “booting” that Shell received. DM/OBP

* A quote in this article was amended for clarity.

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All Comments 9

  • Mantashe puts his foot in it again. What is it with this high-handed approach? Apart from corruption and inefficiency (and gross stupidity at times) the Government is decidedly murky in their various dealings while the new-ish No 1 sits quiet as a sphinx at the top of the pile. Ag nee man!

  • Will we ever be rid of these “exploiters”, that will with the help of the government just keep on destroying our coast line, and marine life? All for a quick buck!

  • And there, under cover of silence, in the thick of things, we have it again….. Gwede Mantashe! This guy is (b)sad news …… panders to whomsoever twists his arm the hardest.

  • This approach of the government granting permits without following the required processes to assess environmental impacts properly must end. Government cannot be allowed circumvent the required processes in legislation. They are in such a rush to exploit and benefit from resources, and think that they can continuously disregard and flout environmental legislation and requirements with impunity, in order to push pet projects, no matter what the consequences. This cannot be allowed to continue, there are now such a pile list of dubious projects and decisions coming out of the Department of Mineral Resources and Emergy, it is a very dangerous pattern of behaviour with potential grave consequences for the environment if allowed to continue.

  • We are constantly bombarded by the RET faction and their associates on the issues of the evils of colonialism, white monopoly capital, land redistribution and the failure of the white population to commit to change and address these issues. And then along comes a white colonial power, Australia,
    and these idiots hand them our maritime heritage to do with as they see fit so that they can still play the victim for another 50 years because of the negative impact of these seismic surveys have had on our marine resources and the peoples’ ability to earn and survive from the marine resources we should be protecting.. Easier to get paid “compensation” than actually work to protect the country’s heritage and future well being. The RET faction must remember, the black government of South Africa allowed these white colonialists from Australia to carry out these damning processes.
    Just a last thought, would the Australian population allow seismic surveys anywhere near their protected marine areas – just imagine the Great Barrier Reef being affected by seismic surveys carried out by an Australian company. It will never happen – only in Africa will it happen – and only if allowed by Africans.

    • You said it! The only colour that greed recognises is the colour of money!

      Mining companies always choose some other doorstep to Sh#t on, seems it is preferable to keep the seething masses (us) at a good arms length when going about wrecking our environment…?!

  • Not only Mantashe at it again, but obviously quite a few private scavengers in here to enrich themselves even more. at the expense of the poor people desperately trying to make a living.

    These stupid, uninformed ego and wealth driven criminals do not respect anybody or anything. Disgusting!

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