Our Burning Planet

SUSTAINING THE WILD COAST OP-ED

‘Kuzophela konke’ – Why we say no to HCI, Total, Shell and to government’s gas plan

Amadiba elder, Samson Gampe. (Photo: Max Bastard)

The greenhouse gas emissions of SA exports will continue to place us in danger of Western climate sanctions if we try to switch from coal to methane gas. And that means the Hosken Consolidated Investment (HCI) oil and gas subsidiary, Impact, and its allies Shell and Total, will be sabotaging the rest of the economy.

“Imali iyaphela, umhlaba awupheli” — money gets finished, the land does not, is how Amadiba elder, uTata Samson Gampe summed up his opposition to coastal dune mining in Xolobeni on the Wild Coast. 

We think he would say the same thing in response to the government’s proposed Gas Master Plan which aims to enable oil and gas extraction from land and sea and pipe it across the country to burn to produce electricity. If South Africa pursues methane gas, as indicated in last month’s press release by Minister Gwede Mantashe, we will be pursuing a path to irreparable environmental damage and irreversible climate change, as well as the demise of coastline communities and livelihoods. 

To paraphrase uTata Gampe’s idiom, if we pursue the Gas Master Plan and the economic growth it will enable, “kuzophela konke” — everything will be finished. As others have put it, “there are no jobs on a dead planet”. 

The South African government’s Gas Master Plan promotes gas as a responsible transition fuel that will enable South Africa to transition away from coal. However, when fugitive emissions of methane-rich gas — the gas that escapes the pipes during extraction and transportation — are taken into account, they negate the claim that liquefied natural gas is an environmentally friendly or even “transitional” fossil fuel, given that it consists 90% of methane. 

Over the first two decades after its release, scientists agree, methane gas is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of warming the climate system. In the first 100 years after methane is emitted, it is still 25 times more potent than CO2. 

Gas is neither clean nor green and if South Africa pursues the Gas Master Plan, it cannot meet its carbon emission reduction commitments. The greenhouse gas emissions of SA exports will continue to place us in danger of Western climate sanctions if we try to switch from coal to methane gas. And that means the Hosken Consolidated Investment (HCI) oil and gas subsidiary, Impact, and its allies Shell and Total, will be sabotaging the rest of the economy. 

HCI must also listen to the International Energy Agency in their May 2021 report on the pathway to cutting carbon emissions by the amounts needed to avoid full-fledged catastrophe: “No new natural gas fields are needed beyond those already under development. Also not needed are many of the LNG liquefaction facilities currently under construction or at the planning stage.”

Pursuing the Gas Master Plan will waste significant state resources in building expensive infrastructure that will likely become stranded assets. It will sink resources that we need for a just transition away from fossil fuels, and it will lock South Africa into using fossil fuel gas when the rest of the world is moving towards reliance on renewables. Sanctions will surely follow; the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism will kick in next January and start imposing prohibitive costs on many South African exports within a few years. 

These inconvenient truths about gas, climate change, carbon taxes and stranded assets are not mentioned by the board of HCI — led by Johnny Copelyn — when attempting to persuade us that their gas exploration and extraction plans are honourable, sensible, unavoidable and in the best interests of South Africa. 

The residents of Amadiba and other rural areas are already beginning to experience climate crisis. Agriculture is becoming more challenging as unpredictable weather patterns and more extreme weather events such as more droughts and heavier downpours of rain keep increasing. Livestock are sick more often. If HCI board members really consider our arguments against seismic testing as “emotional”, or “unfounded” they must sit with Wild Coast residents and discuss the climate implications of more oil and gas extraction on their lives and livelihoods. 

HCI states that the current protests are fundamentally about extraction — not the lack of consultation with coastal communities or about seismic testing. It is unhelpful to separate these processes as they are all part of the same plan. Separately and together they are deeply problematic and we object to them all. 

Another wise elder of Amadiba — uTata Bhalasheleni Mthwa — refused to allow Australian mining company MRC to even test the red sands of the Xolobeni Red Dunes adjacent to his homestead because testing the sand was likely to lead to mining them for heavy minerals. In his words: “ayiothyolwa ingavumanga” — you do not pay lobola for the lady who has not agreed to marry you. 

In other words, don’t ask to come and test our red sands for minerals when we have not agreed to you mining here. Paying lobola and getting married go together, just like exploration and extraction. 

The Amadiba community, led by the Amadiba Crisis Committee, has shown that resisting exploration is vital to resisting extraction. It said no to exploration of their Xolobeni Red Dunes because they didn’t want extraction to destroy their ancestral lands. Today they are still planting, harvesting, eating and selling their sweet potatoes on the land that MRC wants to mine, and growing ecotourism in order to host visitors from across the world. 

The Amadiba know, and the research supports their views, that mining will not bring more benefits to those living in Amadiba than other options such as supporting local tourism, agriculture and ecological protection for future generations. 

The HCI board claims that the fears of seismic survey damage to the ocean and the livelihoods of those who depend on the ocean are “unfounded”. It is difficult for us to understand this statement given that the Makhanda High Court judgment of 28 December affirmed that there is strong scientific evidence that seismic testing can cause irreparable harm to ocean life. Also, in early January 11 top scientists representing the Academy of Sciences of South Africa spoke out strongly about the dangers of seismic surveys, cautioning that the loud and outdated air gun technologies used in such surveys date back at least 50 years and were likely to cause “real harm to marine life”.

Fishermen on the Wild Coast are extremely concerned about the damage that seismic blasting and oil and gas extraction will do to their livelihoods. They have depended on the ocean for survival for all their lives.

In the words of Port St Johns fisherman, Ntsindiso Nongcavu, “seismic testing will impact our fish and other marine life and will affect the ecosystems they need to flourish. Continuing to exploit our oceans will increase our carbon emissions (thereby exacerbating climate change) and take our country into extreme poverty and hunger. All the while, only a few will enjoy the wealth. We want wellbeing for all — not wealth for a few!”

Instead of claiming that environmentalists are “peddling fears of catastrophic damage to the coastline and its inhabitants”, the HCI Board must leave the luxury of their boardroom and engage with the concerns of fishermen like Mr Nongcavu and the many fishing communities along the entire coastline of South Africa. 

The extraction of oil and gas is a highly risky process that has already caused great damage through oil spills and blowouts in many parts of the world. Consider what such an event would mean for the Wild Coast, as the powerful Agulhas Current quickly washes everything in its path up and down the coast. To illustrate, plastic nurdles spilt in an October 2017 superstorm in the Durban harbour were found on beaches along the east coast from Kosi Bay in the north to Scarborough in the south. 

The Gas Master Plan does not include plans for, or take into account, the costs of oil and gas spills. With some gas deposits 4km deep below the surface in what is the second most turbulent current in the world, HCI, Total and Shell are playing a dangerous game. The massive negative economic impacts on South Africa’s coastline and fishing and tourism industry of an oil spill or gas leak would be even more devastating than Covid-19. This week, 6,000 barrels of oil polluted approximately 18,000 square metres of beach in Peru, when waves caused by the Tonga volcanic eruption — all the way across the Pacific Ocean — caused a spill as an Italian ship was being loaded. Six months ago, off the Mexican coast, the ocean literally burned as a result of an underwater offshore gas leak.

The PASA map shows how the ocean off the entire coast of South Africa has been parcelled out and allocated to various foreign companies seeking to explore for and extract oil and/or gas. 

The Gas Master Plan for South Africa is not a responsible plan. It is a hasty effort to enable foreign companies and the South African government to make money in the short term and in the process, damage our Earth and ocean and destroy our future. 

If we look to Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, we can see that gas extraction does not improve the lives of local people; instead, it causes displacement, environmental degradation, social unrest and violence. The war in Cabo Delgado — that South Africa is supporting mainly on behalf of the Paris-based Total oil company — is not caused by religious insurgency. It is caused by the rage and chaos that is triggered when people witness foreigners making money out of their dispossession. Part of that crisis hit local residents hard in April 2019: Cyclone Kenneth’s 225km/h winds which tore down nearly every structure, and which were the result of warming Mozambique Current water, were caused by climate change.

The HCI board acknowledges that the Mozambican oil supply is politically unstable — “much of the route is politically unstable and is likely to be regularly disrupted” — in order to make the case for their own gas prospecting. But they fail to interrogate the reasons for this instability or acknowledge that similar instability might affect future gas projects and infrastructure in South Africa. Transnet regularly reports hundreds of break-ins to their own petroleum pipelines. 

Sadly, our government leaders seem ignorant of or deliberately dismissive of the negative impacts of resource extraction on the environment and people. During colonial and apartheid times, the rights of people who inconveniently got in the way of mining operations, or even big conservation projects were simply disregarded. Has nothing changed? 

A family, extended and direct, harvest a crop of sweet potatoes in Sigidi Village on the Wild Coast.( Photo: Supplied)

The Gas Master Plan is being presented as urgent, so as to supply energy and create jobs. But not only is gas infrastructure not a responsible investment, we know there are millions of jobs to be created through a genuine Just Transition to a decarbonised future. 

The challenges in this transition are huge, but our energy crisis can become an opportunity to harness the creative resources and for our many remarkable scientists and entrepreneurs to develop an energy plan that creates good jobs, and does not destroy our Earth life support systems. 

We do not want to witness South Africa becoming uninhabitable because of climate change and the terrible disruptions that will accompany catastrophic global warming, as are already being felt in many parts of the world

We are living in a time of great change and many new innovative advances in energy provision are very likely in the near future. This requires that we practice caution in committing to costly, risky and outright dangerous fossil fuel megaprojects such as the Gas Master Plan, when there are possible alternatives that need more attention. 

HCI suggests that “aspiring to be the only country in the world that sits on valuable resources it needs, but refuses to develop, is a luxury we simply cannot afford”. 

Actually, that logic is exactly what André de Ruyter persuaded Western financiers to accept: leaving Mpumalanga’s coal underground deserves concessional finance. We would like to call that an initial down-payment on the West’s climate debt to the world. And this logic must apply just as much to methane gas offshore Cabo Delgado, the Wild Coast and the Atlantic Coast. 

We believe the West has overconsumed — as have South Africa’s elites — and has too great and unjust a carbon footprint. They need to consider what is termed “degrowth” and the need for countries that have suffered the impacts of climate change to be paid to keep fossil fuels in the ground. 

One way to make this case is a full cost accounting of the climate damage — measured now at R45,000/ton of CO2-equivalent emissions —  that HCI’s gas extraction is likely to do. 

The latest research on climate damage suggests to us that HCI’s gross revenues will be outstripped by more than 30-fold in terms of the resulting climate costs to us and future generations. They will be making money, and we, the people of South Africa and the rest of planet Earth will be the losers for generations to come. 

The coastline around Morgan Bay in the Eastern Cape, 10 March 2009. (Photo: Gallo Images)

The measurement of carbon in the atmosphere needs to become more important to us in charting our future than measurement of profits or GDP, which simply externalise or ignore pollution. And this measurement must be a primary factor in determining whether we say yes or no to further fossil fuel extraction. 

Contemporary African philosopher Bayo Akomolafe says, “we live in urgent times, slow down”. 

So we also now ask our government leaders to slow down and seek a future energy plan that is grounded in sound research, courage and the wisdom of elders like uTata Gampe who knew that if we destroy the Earth and the ocean we destroy ourselves and the future of our children. Otherwise, ngempela, kuzophela konke. 

The deadline for submitting public comments to the Gas Master Plan is 31 January 2022. OBP/DM

The writers are members of Sustaining the Wild Coast (www.swc.org.za) which works to support the growth of agroecology and ecotourism in the Amadiba area of The Wild Coast. 

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  • I am pro renewables and significantly invested in renewables. I also suspect HCI, Mantashe and the ANC are motivated by the money they will make and not national interest.

    However, the concern over western sanctions if we go big gas has to first explain how they will do this when they are themselves MASSIVELY dependent on gas?

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