Our Burning Planet

SEISMIC SURVEYS

SA ‘must stop exploring for more offshore oil and gas’, say eco-activists

SA ‘must stop exploring for more offshore oil and gas’, say eco-activists
Activists and protesters at a Shell garage in Newlands, Cape Town during a protest against the 3D Seismic Survey commissioned by Shell along the West Coast on 4 December 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The Green Connection says South Africa does not need more fossil fuels, so why is the government still looking? Environmental group The Green Connection vows not to be quiet about the risks of offshore oil and gas exploration in South Africa until these are stopped and the country invests in renewable energy.

The Green Connection’s strategic lead, Liziwe McDaid, said the government does not need more fossil fuels, “so why are we still looking?” 

McDaid said COP27, the international climate action negotiations, ran from 6-18 November and yet, in that time, fossil fuel companies had released a stream of oil and gas application documents for public comment. 

“This is starting to feel like a stuck record. Dear decision-makers, we are in a climate crisis, a massive threat to food security. We must stop exploring for more offshore oil and gas, and rather invest in more renewable energy.” 

She said that last week the eco-justice organisation had submitted comments on a draft Basic Assessment Report, which forms part of the environmental impact assessment process for TGS Geophysical Company UK’s application to undertake a 3D seismic survey over multiple petroleum licence blocks off the West Coast. 

“Even in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that 2021 was essentially the cut-off for investment in new fossil

fuel supply in its net zero pathway … no new oil and gas field developments should be approved. 

“However, with the ongoing high rate of offshore oil and gas exploration applications in South Africa, it feels like a fossil-fuel free-for-all. These projects, if approved and successful in locating more commercially exploitable oil and gas reserves, will likely overshadow the country’s climate change commitments which are supposed to be geared at rapidly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. 

McDaid asked how would finding, extracting, and burning more offshore fossil fuels help us honour these commitments. 

“And how can we expect South Africa’s largely indigenous coastal communities to willingly risk the precious oceans that they rely on to live and make a living, to look for oil and gas that should not be burnt?” 

Threat to the ocean 

McDaid said The Green Connection would continue to oppose offshore oil and gas exploration because of its climate impacts and the threat it poses to the ocean and to small-scale fishers who rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. 

“The organisation recently launched an international campaign focusing on Total, which is the operator of one of the licence blocks in which TGS seeks to conduct seismic surveys. (Total has also applied for authorisation to conduct exploration drilling southwest of Cape Town and off the West Coast, and has applied for a production right off the South Cape coast). The target area for TGS’s proposed seismic survey also overlaps with the area applied for by Searcher, which The Green Connection has long been opposing,” she said. 

According to McDaid, two recurring themes remain prevalent in the cases that lead to legal challenges. 

“These relate to the lack of consideration of climate change impacts should commercially exploitable oil and gas reserves be discovered, and the lack of meaningful consultation with affected communities. 

“On 1 March 2022, the Western Cape High Court ruled in favour of small-scale fishing and indigenous communities on the West Coast when it granted an urgent interdict stopping Searcher’s seismic blasting.

“In September 2022, the Makhanda High Court ruled against Shell’s attempts to conduct seismic surveys offshore of the Wild Coast, ruling that the consultation carried out was inadequate and procedurally unfair,” she said. 

McDaid said the judge also stated that had the decision-maker had the benefit of considering a comprehensive assessment of the need and desirability of exploring for new oil and gas reserves from a climate change and right-to-food perspective, it may well have concluded that the exploration was neither needed nor desirable. 

On Tuesday, Daily Maverick reported that the Eastern Cape High Court in Gqeberha had reserved judgment in an application for leave to appeal by the minister of mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, Impact Africa and Shell against a judgment by the Makhanda High Court which found that the exploration right granted by the minister to allow Shell to conduct seismic surveys off the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast was unlawful. 

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“We are disappointed that Shell was back in court this week, making an application for leave to appeal the Wild Coast judgment. It is clear that this company plans to continue with fossil fuel exploration, irrespective of the climate crisis,” she said. 

She said the climate crisis was forcing us to reimagine our economy and energy systems, which must move away from fossil fuels to more sustainable, renewable sources. 

“Given that the planet cannot afford increased extraction and burning of fossil fuels — to which seismic surveys are the precursor — The Green Connection is of the view that TGS should be refused authorisation to conduct its proposed seismic surveys off the West Coast of South Africa.” 

The Green Connection’s community outreach coordinator, Neville van Rooy, said: “While there are a number of technicalities surrounding the TGS application that are highlighted in our submission, our main concerns are the climate impact of extracting and using more oil and gas should commercially exploitable sources be discovered, and the unnecessary risk to our oceans and marine ecosystems of conducting seismic surveys — which are critical to mitigating climate change and for sustaining small-scale fishers’ livelihoods.”

He said since the primary purpose of an offshore seismic survey was to locate oil and gas reserves, it was only reasonable to expect that the environmental impact assessment should, at least in a broad sense, consider the climate impacts if commercially exploitable reserves are found, and in the future extracted and used. 

“However, since the assessment in the draft [Basic Assessment Report] only covers the potential impacts from the proposed 3D seismic survey itself, it ignores the actual need and desirability of exploring for (and ultimately producing and using) more oil and gas, both in the context of the climate change crisis and in terms of people’s right to food,” he said. 

Van Rooy said the EIA indicates that potential impacts of 3D seismic surveys on marine animals — certain whale species, large migratory pelagic fish (like tuna and billfish) and shark species, turtles and birds — can include physical injury and death (especially to species in close proximity to the seismic survey blasting). 

He said: “3D seismic surveys can also result in behavioural avoidance and reduced reproductive successes (as well as other impacts). However, the potential significance of these impacts is downplayed by assuming that these impacts can be successfully mitigated (notwithstanding that some of the proposed mitigation measures are not effective — for example, reliance on marine mammal observers to do visual sightings is not effective at night or during adverse weather conditions).” 

Van Rooy said The Green Connection was hopeful that common sense would prevail. 

“Just like Shell, TGS should be required to demonstrate that seismic surveys do not cause irreparable harm to marine life, especially given that there is a growing body of scientific evidence available — including evidence provided by 10 experts in the Shell court case — that it could cause such harm. 

“And where there is not enough information about the impact on marine life, just as in the Searcher ruling, the decision must be to take the precautionary approach,” he said. DM/OBP

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