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‘The timing felt strategic’ – activists scramble to submit appeal after government approves seismic survey in Algoa Basin

‘The timing felt strategic’ – activists scramble to submit appeal after government approves seismic survey in Algoa Basin
Protesters and activists at the Call To Action Against Fossil Fuel Exploration And Extraction Off The Coast of South Africa protest at Muizenberg Beach in Cape Town on 9 December 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

More than 20 protest actions took place across the country over the weekend, objecting to all 22 current applications to drill and blast for oil and gas offshore in South Africa, including TotalEnergies and the CGG seismic survey planned for January 2024, which was recently granted authorisation by the government.

‘The science is very clear. How could the world respond so quickly on a scientific basis to Covid-19, yet be so lax, tardy and irresponsible when it comes to responding to something as important as climate change?” posed Patrick Dowling from the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.

On 23 November – to the shock of coastal communities – the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) approved UK-based company CGG to conduct a seismic survey in the Algoa/Outeniqua Basin off the southeast coast of South Africa. Appeals for this approval are due on 13 December. 

“It came as such a shock and we were given only 20 days to appeal this approval,” Rhian Berning, CEO of the Eden to Addo Corridor, told Daily Maverick.

“The timing felt strategic. And yet, despite everyone feeling pushed to their limits in the end-of-year mad rush, the local response has been phenomenal.”

seismic survey

Protesters and activists gather for the Call To Action Against Fossil Fuel Exploration And Extraction Off The Coast of South Africa protest at Muizenberg Beach on 9 December 2023 (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

CGG, which says they “combine human ingenuity, data and new technology for a more sustainable future”, wants to conduct a speculative 3D seismic survey from January 2024, which will last every day for five months, across 12,000km2 through migratory whale routes between Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape and Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape.

This forms part of a series of recent authorisations by the South African government that allow for a number of oil and gas applications to get under way in the coming months. 

The groups that spearheaded the protests over the weekend said the recent authorisations which catalysed their actions are: 

  • Authorisation by the DMRE for CGG to conduct a speculative 3D seismic survey in the Algoa/Outeniqua Basin off the southeast coast of South Africa (appeals open to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment before 13 December 2023);
  • The decision by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy to reject an environmental appeal off the West Coast, meaning seismic surveys by Searcher are planned to start after 1 January 2024 unless taken to court; and
  • The decision by Creecy to reject the environmental appeal against oil and gas exploration in blocks 567 (from Gansbaai on the South Coast to Doring Baai on the West Coast). This means TotalEnergies can start drilling any time from now unless taken to court.

Writing in The Conversation, marine scientists Ryan Day, Jayson Semmens and Robert McCauley explained that marine seismic surveys, which can be used to search for oil and gas, use air guns to generate sound signals. During a survey, sound signals are generated every four to 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These signals are intense, and their sound waves can be detected thousands of kilometres from the source.

The protest at Muizenberg Beach on 9 December 2023 was part of the global day of action for climate justice. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

‘Understated harms’

Berning said that just five days after a peaceful protest march in Plettenberg Bay in response to TotalEnergies’ application to drill 10 gas wells off the coastline, they received notification of the environmental authorisation granted by the DMRE for CGG.

“The time given to appeal was not only too short, it was also at an extremely difficult period for locals to do justice to the complicated and technical appeal process,” she said.

She explained that this is the busiest time of year for coastal towns and everyone is frantically preparing for the holiday season and the influx of visitors and tourists who provide the lifeblood to their towns. 

“Our small Plett protest chat group simply mushroomed exponentially overnight to over 1,000 people and volunteers put their hands up from all corners of the country to help with social media, appeals and coordinating a nationwide protest on 9 December to coincide with the global day of action for climate justice,” Berning added.

Cullinan & Associates, a niche environmental firm, which led the successful challenge to Shell’s proposed seismic survey, are filing an appeal against the DMRE’s approval. Their services are paid for by two civil society organisations, Natural Justice and the Green Connection. Many people, including citizens, lawyers and activists, are also volunteering their time to write appeals and to protest across the country. 

The environmental assessment practitioners… are paid for by the exploration companies… And very often, unfortunately, only convey a certain part of the science.

Ricky Stone, an attorney with Cullinan & Associates, told Daily Maverick: “We feel that the competent authority, the DMRE, [has] made a wrong decision on various fronts.”

Stone said that, most patently, there was only a basic assessment report done on the environmental impacts of this survey, as opposed to the more comprehensive environmental impact assessment. 

“From a science point of view, we feel that many of the harms are understated,” said Stone.

Sustaining the Wild Coast activists take part in nationwide action on 9 December 2023. Multinational corporations, including Shell, Qatar, Total Energies and contractors such as CGG and Searcher, are among the focal points of the latest round of public outrage. (Photo: Lungelo Mtwa)

“The environmental assessment practitioners, although the law requires them to be independent, they are paid for by the exploration companies, in this case CGG. And very often, unfortunately, only convey a certain part of the science.”

Along with feeling the science is outdated and not comprehensive enough, Stone said: “There is a plethora of contrary evidence out there, which says that seismic surveys do have immense harms, especially at this time of the year, especially in this area of the coastline, which is very important for whale and dolphin migratory routes, very important for turtle hatchlings, and perhaps more locally based around St Francis to Plett area, the squid fishery.”

Berning said that “we are all devastated about the impact this will have on indigenous fishing communities who have lived in close relationship to this coastline for literally thousands of years”.

“And the loss of jobs as tourism is impacted by whales and dolphins moving away from the seismic blasting and gas drilling.”

Liz McDaid, strategic lead of the Green Connection, said its citizens and civic organisations are stepping up to address the impacts of climate change, because “it seems like the government has abandoned us”.

These communities, civil society organisations, environmental campaigners and legal professionals have voiced concerns about the absence of adequate meaningful public engagement and the improper procedures being followed in relation to the exploration authorisations.

The Plett Community Environment Forum, Eden to Addo Corridor and the Inqua Royal San and Khoikhoi Sovereign Aboriginal Autonomous Authority gather in Plettenberg Bay, Western Cape, on 9 December 2023, along with people from across the country, in protest against oil and gas drilling off the South African coast. (Photo: Grace Harrison)

Searcher, TotalEnergies and Karpowership

Along with submitting appeals against GGC, McDaid said the Green Connection, coastal communities and other civil society organisations have filed appeals against Searcher Geodata, TotalEnergies, and Karpowership – which have all received authorisation from the government in recent months.

Searcher is set to start a seismic survey about 220km off the West Coast in 2024. Appeals against Searcher were dismissed by the environment minister and now a notice has been sent with information that it intends to start surveying from 1 January. 

Then, appeals were dismissed against TotalEnergies’ application to dril in Block 5/6/7 which covers about 10,000km2 offshore between Cape Town and Cape Agulhas, but those pushing the appeal are currently awaiting legal advice on the way forward as they can only apply to have the decision judicially reviewed within 180 days from when the appeal decision was handed down by the minister.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Drill, baby, drill: Environment Ministry gives Total green light for Western Cape coast offshore drilling

McDaid said: “This is not urgent yet, unless they (TotalEnergies) suddenly send a notice saying they’re coming in 30 days. If they do that, then that will most likely result in a court case, but we are also waiting for legal advice on this matter.”

The appeal date for the controversial Karpowership application in Saldanha is also scheduled to close this Thursday (14 December). The Green Connection is also submitting an appeal. McDaid said they also are awaiting the outcome of their appeal against Karpowership’s application in Richards Bay. 

“We believe, especially as it becomes evident that not nearly enough is being done to address the climate crisis, that it is important to show government decision-makers and these oil and gas companies that South Africans are united against climate change-causing fossil fuels, which also threaten the livelihoods of our coastal communities,” McDaid said. 

“This is why, on Saturday (9 December) we joined with people all over the globe to stand together to oppose oil and gas.”

One of those people was Geronimo de Klerk from Elsie’s River on the Cape Flats, who joined about 100 people gathered at Muizenberg Beach on Saturday for the nationwide protests at coastal points against oil and gas drilling off the South Africa coast. It formed part of the Global Day for Climate Action.

“Something that we say is that the ocean is alive and gives us life, that’s why Elsie’s River has stood up in numbers today,” De Klerk told Daily Maverick.

“We say no to the so-called leaders allowing this and subsequently allowing the poorest of the poor to get more poor because of their decisions [allowing] the extraction of oil and worsening of the [prospects of] communities on the seaside and the fishing communities,” said De Klerk, who founded the food justice organisation Feed the Future For Life. 

Greenpeace Africa activists in Durban on 9 December 2023 protest against oil and gas drilling off the South African coast. (Photo: Sourced)

Gabriel Klaasen, from the African Climate Alliance and Project 90 by 2030, said part of the reason they gathered on Saturday was that they were not standing alone: “Today we stand in Muizenberg from different communities all across Cape Town… because we know that not only will it damage the biodiversity and ecosystems in our oceans, but it will negatively impact our local frontline communities and people who depend on small-scale fishing.” 

The Muizenberg group emphasised that this fight was not just for the oceans but for people. 

“If they [government] don’t pay attention and don’t act in accordance with what we’re asking and demanding, then it’s clear that they don’t only not care about our planet, but they don’t care about our people either,” said Klaasen, “which is quite jarring ahead of election year.”

Dowling said this protest action is taking place during COP28 in Dubai, “where so-called leaders are making decisions which affect the whole of humanity and extensive biodiversity on a planet on which we should be custodians, and not exploited”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: COP28 news hub

Dowling added that exploration leads to further exploitation of resources and that a big wake-up was needed because the world has procrastinated on the issue of climate change for too long. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andre Swart says:

    Last ‘dash for cash’ by the desperate ANC cadres of whom many will hopefully be unemployed in a few months time when they will be voted OUT!

    As in the Arms Scandal, they are adamant to score big time, from corrupt oil and gas companies.

    Selling out our country AGAIN to fill their own pockets.

    While the entire planet is leaving oil and gas, these corrupt thugs in Sub Sahara are conspiring with BIG OIL and gas, against the interests of the citizens.

    Let’s unite in the fight for our survival against the greedy traitors in the ANC.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Hahahaha – talk about rent-a-crowd! You think you’re seeing poverty now, follow these loonies and you’ll see real poverty

  • The whole idea is absolutely appalling – demonstrates no care or responsibility for the environment, the people who depend on the ocean or others who depend on the coastal towns for tourism and their livelihood. It is plunder and greedy destruction of the worst kind . The timing was no doubt deliberate

  • Sven Coles says:

    Sadly,oil and gas cannot be switched off overnight. The transition to alternate energy sources is and will take a significant amount of time yet. To use locally sourced fossil fuels is way better than shipping them half way around the world.
    DM should also ensure factual accuracy of the data quoted in articles.

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