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Local rags spread fear about seismic surveys

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

A new wave of hysteria about offshore seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration has hit the local newspapers of the southern Cape coast. The fear is that it will cause harm to marine life and consequently affect tourism in the region. As usual, those fears are wildly exaggerated.

The front page article in the Knysna-Plett Herald of 11 May 2017 screams, “Oil be damned”. While it is a moderately clever pun, the sentiment is clear. “This is our children’s future you are gambling with. I’ll be damned if we give into (sic) them,” the paper quotes “one irate resident”.

Other local articles follow a similar line, highlighting the purported risks to the environment and tourism of such a survey. Perhaps that is because all of them were written by the same reporter.

The occasion that prompted these articles was a pair of public meetings on a proposed three-month seismic survey project to be conducted by Sungu Sungu Oil, pursuant to an exploration permit which was issued by the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) in 2016. The permit covers the 11,224km2 Pletmos Basin, which extends from Knysna in the west to Jeffrey’s Bay in the east, and extending between 50km and 70km offshore. The proposed survey will only cover 2,500km2 of this region, in a block that lies at least 12km offshore, from the border between the Western Cape and Eastern Cape to Oyster Bay in the east.

The block can be seen in context on the latest PASA map showing exploration activities in South Africa.

The claims in the newspaper are predictably vague, but alarming. A spokesperson for the Plettenberg Bay Community Environmental Forum, Basil van Rooyen, told the local newspaper, “One of the key issues is the possible impact on the town’s tourism industry. Plett is almost completely dependent on tourism, and any exploration activity is likely to be hugely disturbing to the industry.”

The dependence on tourism is true for most towns along the southern Cape’s famous Garden Route. However, Van Rooyen offered no explanation about how exactly the tourism industry would (or even could) be affected. But we’ll get back to the tourism claim.

The newspaper also quoted a local marine biologist, Gwen Penry. “[Penry] explained that although there is very little research on the impact of seismic surveing there are potential dangers to marine life.”

It goes on to quote an environmental non-profit group to firm up claims of impacts on marine life, before returning to Van Rooyen: “The survey could have a massive negative effect on any kind of fishing activities.”

Hugely.” “Massive.” These are big words, considering that no evidence is provided to substantiate his claims. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project, conducted by SRK Consulting, finds that there will be some unavoidable environmental impacts – as there is with any human activity at all – but as long as adequate mitigation measures are in place the impacts on marine life range from low to insignificant. Even without mitigation, the impacts are not severe. The same is true for the impacts on fishing, which are all very low or insignificant when mitigation measures are taken. The impact on tourism is also rated as very low, requiring only notification of coastal water users such as divers.

Of course, you may not believe an EIA conducted by a company commissioned by the oil and gas industry. Due to the public unease about the project, the comment period has been extended to 15 June 2017 at the request of SRK Consulting, so let’s see if the EIA findings are at least plausible.

Penry’s claim that there has been “very little research” on the impact of seismic surveys on marine life is dubious. There is plenty of research on the impact of seismic surveys on marine life. The research findings aren’t always consistent and identify some gaps in our knowledge, but they mostly find that the response of marine life to the air guns used in seismic surveys is limited to short-term avoidance action. Physical harm occurs only at very short range, and the studies find no evidence of significant long-term negative effects on fisheries or other marine life. Even a researcher for Greenpeace found no evidence of physical harm, and noted that the sound of an air gun is very similar to the sound of a whale breaching.

Offshore seismic surveys have been used extensively for many decades, particularly in energy-rich regions such as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, the Gulf of Guinea off west Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, the seas around south-east Asia and Indonesia, and the ocean off Brazil. In none of these regions have significant impacts on the marine environment been recorded. Seismic surveys have also had no impact on tourism in these regions.

Such surveys are also not unprecedented in South African waters. On PASA’s exploration map you’ll see seismic lines all along the coast from Port Elizabeth to the Mozambican border, as well as covering a huge area off the country’s west coast. Nowhere has significant impact on marine life or tourism been documented.

Even with a high vantage point, you’ll never notice seismic research vessels and would be hard-pressed to spot oil and gas rigs operating 12km or more offshore. Mossel Bay is a good example: despite years of oil and gas activity, the only time you actually see an oil rig is when it comes into the bay for maintenance. Besides the production wells off Mossel Bay, dozens of exploration wells have been drilled all along the coast from Mossel Bay to Port Elizabeth. Nobody has ever noticed, let alone complained that these wells have harmed marine life or tourism.

Van Rooyen’s claims that seismic surveys would have a “massive negative effect” on marine life and be “hugely disturbing” to the tourism industry are unfounded opinion backed up by no evidence at all. Penry’s speculation about “potential dangers to marine life” is valid only in the sense that any human activity poses “potential dangers”. There is simply no scientific basis for predicting anything other than insignificant environmental impacts.

Yet newspapers keep publishing such speculative fear-mongering, which feeds obstructionism and anti-industry bias, especially among wealthy elites who believe they do okay. Yes, the Garden Route depends heavily on tourism. But ask around what the average employee in the tourism industry actually earns, or how high unemployment remains. Underneath the glitz and glamour, the working class in towns like Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Jeffrey’s Bay remain poor.

Wealthy elites living in coastal luxury can afford to say “oil be damned”, even though this sentiment is unjustly prejudicial to the oil and gas industry. However, the signatures of 1,000-odd people on a petition started by Ivan Keir, a local surfer and T-shirt seller, trample on the interests of the majority of the residents on the Garden Route.

These are the people who can’t take time off work or can’t afford to travel to public meetings, or who don’t earn enough to spend their time on the internet signing angry petitions full of misleading speculation. They could use more jobs, better energy security, lower fuel prices, or even just more economic activity in the region. At least they can take heart that Keir’s previous petition, to block Sungu Sungu’s exploration permit, failed. One hopes that PASA sees through the fear-mongering falsehoods of the latest petition too.

The alarmist headline turned out to be entirely unjustified, but it did make me spend R3 on a paper copy of the Knysna Plett-Herald, so for newspaper sales, the job’s a good ‘un. DM


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