Opinionista Ivo Vegter 24 September 2013

Think of the little fishies!

Thanks to published documents and public meetings, one of several exploration permits for offshore oil and gas came to the attention of residents along the Garden Route recently. It sparked an immediate outcry. Besides the usual not-in-my-back-yardism and prejudice against oil and gas production, the fear this time is that seismic surveys will completely ruin everything.

In a fit of punctuation, a local resident emailed us all recently, urging us to save our town.

I am not exaggerating,” he exaggerates, before exhorting us to, “STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING – RIGHT NOW! YOU MUST HELP! … Please spend the next 20 minutes sharing this email with as many people as you can!!!”

Clearly, something was amiss, and shouting in capital letters helps to calm a tizzy. The fellow had read in the local newspaper that OK Energy Limited was to be awarded a permit to explore for oil and gas in a previously unclaimed block off the coast between Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay. OK Energy is a small oil and gas exploration outfit based in the United Kingdom.

The exploration would not involve any protected marine reserves, or the 25km environmental buffer zone declared by law along the entire coast line, but nonetheless, the implications will be disastrous, he tells us. “It will destroy our beautiful coast… It will destroy tourism… It could chase away the fish, dolphins and whales for years. It will cause damage.”

Grave stuff, indeed, but luckily, a surfer who sells “hippi (sic) clothing” out of a store called Shining Things is on the case: “Ivan Keir, a local surfer, has a chance to stop them. He started an online petition… The goal is to stop their seismic exploration which is like fracking our seabeds.”

The good news is that seismic exploration “is like fracking our seabeds” much like browsing a boutique resembles working in a clothing factory. That is, the two both involve the same industry sector, but they couldn’t be more different.

Seismic surveys involve a research ship firing one or more submerged air guns to create sound waves, while a network of receivers trailing behind the ship picks up the echoes. From the nature of the reflections, the ship’s computers generates an image of the sea floor and the rock strata beneath it.

No rocks are fractured, hydraulically or otherwise, in the making of this picture.

Of course, if seismic exploration shows that there are shale oil or gas resources to develop, they probably will use hydraulic fracturing, just as they’ve been doing with offshore wells for over half a century, but let’s confine ourselves to the alarmist twaddle peddled by our local hippies and surfers.

Even if they find gas or oil, it is not very likely to destroy our beautiful coast, or destroy tourism, or chase away fish, dolphins and whales for years. Accidents happen, but they are rare and preventable, and do not involve seismic surveys unless the research vessel runs aground in a storm.

Not that such details gave any pause to the 669 slacktivists who, at the time of writing, had signed the “Save Our Cape Coast” petition. They were urged to copy and paste a trite non sequitur to serve as an incantation against all this nastiness: “Because environmental tourism is more important than energy companies destroying nature.”

Sure it is. In the same inane way that food is more important than energy. Don’t believe me? Try not eating. No amount of hot water or electric light will make up for it.

Energy production, while it involves some risks, as most human activity does, is not mutually exclusive with protecting the environment. We can do both, and both are desirable – even necessary. Except to simple minds, our world is not confined to simplistic binary choices.

Not that one can win such arguments against people who think the world turns on unicorn farts and rain dances, but let’s focus on the specific objection: seismic surveying, which they say is “like fracking our seabeds”. In other words, it will destroy like everything, dude.

This is another example of alarmism by activists who are, at best, laymen in the field.

People are naturally scared of industrial processes that they don’t understand. They’re also very self-interested. A region that traditionally depends on tourism or fishing, for example, will instinctively object to industrial activity they fear may impact on their business. To such objectors, it makes little difference whether the fears are justified, or what the real hazards and risks are. To them, it makes no matter how much benefit they’d deny someone else, or what rights they’d infringe to allay their own misplaced fears.

The OK Energy block is surrounded by exploration blocks owned by PetroSA, Canadian Natural Resources, Impact Energy, Bayfield Energy and New African Global Energy. Do our protesters labour under the delusion that none of them have ever done seismic surveys before? PetroSA in particular, has been working off the coast of Mossel Bay for donkey’s years.

Our bright government is happy to let them do it,” said the alarmist email, with suspicious sarcasm, but our previous, less-bright government, did so too.

And where have all the whales gone? Is the Hermanus whale crier unemployed? Does Mossel Bay no longer have a tourism industry? Has anyone actually seen one of PetroSA’s wells from the shore, or is our sense of aesthetic purity offended by just knowing they’re there, somewhere, over the horizon?

A program by the Centre for Marine Science and Technology of Curtin University in Australia set out to experimentally test the environmental implications of offshore seismic survey noise. The scientists found that marine animals did respond to sound, as you might expect, but that they mostly took temporary avoiding action, and that seismic effects on individual fish don’t imply population scale effects or disruptions to fisheries.

For many fish species any behavioural changes or avoidance effects may involve little if any risk factor,” the researchers concluded. “Thus a thorough understanding of fish response to seismic, proper risk assessment procedures and good communication between seismic operators and fisherman can negate any potential or perceived problems.“

Another paper, which synthesised the findings, concerns and ongoing research in the scientific literature, found that there was no hard evidence of any physical harm to marine mammals, and that some behavioural effects had been observed in nature.

There are some valid concerns about how activities such as seismic surveys and oil drilling affect marine life. There is interesting research to be done, and what scientists learn certainly can be used to make improvements in technology or procedures to reduce environmental impacts. There is no field in which the science is finished. But there is no evidence of widespread, serious, and systematic harm caused by such seismic surveys.

Jim Cummings, an expert on acoustic ecology, points out that since 1968, some seas, such as the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, have been blanketed with seismic surveys, with “relatively few reports of obvious harm to sea life.”

Evidence of physical harm is scant, he says, and even the impact of avoidance behaviour, which is well-documented, is “very difficult to know”. He even observes that the sound of the air gun used to create the seismic signal is similar to the sound of a whale breaching, and that other whales are attracted by curiosity.

His report was written for Greenpeace, which opposes everything the oil and gas industry has ever done, but Cummings found little firm evidence that seismic surveys do significant harm. Ultimately, he invokes those who question whether it is ethical to impose noise disturbance upon sea creatures.

If that were a valid argument, we have a problem. Research helicopters terrify land-based animals, just as marine research vessels scare the fishes they sail past. Even the eco-cars of eco-tourists scare eco-creatures. Absent evidence that significant harm comes to these animals, objecting to scientific or industrial progress on such flimsy grounds is stir crazy.

Our country has objectives that are as important as environmental protection, and our energy crisis is one of them. So is economic development, when we have such high levels of poverty and unemployment. South Africans ought to welcome that energy companies are so eager to compete to produce more abundant, cleaner and cheaper transport fuel or electricity. Sure, some of those will profit by it, because that is what sets companies that meet consumer needs apart from their failing competitors. Being able to choose among competing firms offering competing energy solutions is good for consumers – even if the government makes those choices on our behalf, under our statist laws.

The real question about offshore oil and gas exploration is not whether the government ought to allow it. Of course it should. The question is whether the people of South Africa will get to benefit, or whether the government and its cronies will keep the loot.

Scream about how seismic surveys will kill the wee little fishies, and your campaign will be treated with the contempt it deserves. You certainly won’t make a difference, as the online petition promises you will, except in the most narrow-minded, obstructionist sense.

You will get taken more seriously if you constructively help assess and mitigate risks, and bother to do a little reading first. Better yet, talk about how to avoid the resource curse – starting with a paper rethinking the subject, of course – and you would do your fellow South Africans a truly good turn. DM


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