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Seismic surveys off the Wild and West coasts: Do the right thing – listen to scientists and do environmental impact assessments


Moctar Doucouré is associate professor of geophysics and Managing Director of the Africa Earth Observatory Network – Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute (AEON) at Nelson Mandela University.

Shell’s approach to exploration off the Wild Coast leads to the perception that they think they can operate in Africa in a way that they would never attempt in Australia or Canada, where taking shortcuts from investing in proper engagement, scientific research and baseline studies is no longer tolerated.

The postponement of Shell’s 3D seismic survey in search of conventional gas along 6,011km2 of the Wild Coast following the second application in the Makhanda High Court is far from the last word on this.

At the root of the problem is that instead of doing the right thing, namely undertaking a credible, scientific environmental impact assessment (EIA) and proper engagement with all stakeholders and affected communities, Shell argues whether they are required by law to do this. It’s a false argument – of course they should be doing this. It should not even be a debate.

Their approach leads to the perception that they think they can operate in Africa in a manner that they would never attempt in places like Australia or Canada, where taking shortcuts from investing in proper engagement, scientific research and baseline studies is no longer tolerated.

Yet our Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) signed off Shell’s exploration application to do 3D seismic surveys along the Wild Coast waters without any EIA or baseline studies and relied entirely on Shell’s assurance that there would be no irreparable damage. The anomaly appears to be that if multinationals want our oil and gas, they must have it because otherwise they will leave South Africa and we won’t develop.

It’s an absurd misuse of development.

The ocean is part of our Commons and the development of the resources it hosts needs to be done in a way that accommodates the concerns of stakeholders. This relies on good governance. To achieve this, one of the concepts that the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) has put forward is the social license to operate. It is a fundamental concept if we are to move into a collaborative future where everyone is a stakeholder in our Commons; that the benefits of resources are received by all; that the means to exploit them are not harmful and are explained in a transparent way.

Government should be the leading enabler of this. Where is the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment in all this? We have the Council for Geoscience and highly skilled marine scientists and entities in the country to do the science we need in the marine environment to better understand the ocean and to be in a better position to assess the impact of seismic surveys. We should be listening to our scientists.

A large group of senior scientists informing on marine ecology and risk mitigation in the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies’ (SAGE) – part of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSAf) – issued an advisory that no seismic survey should be conducted in local waters without a preceding, comprehensive EIA report based on the latest science. It said that environmental management plans (EMPs) (which Shell produced) “should never be considered a valid and legitimate substitute for comprehensive EIA reports”.

As we all know, Shell is only one of many players seeking oil and gas in our waters. A multiclient global company called Searcher Geodata is currently undertaking seismic surveys on the West Coast, claiming it has the required regulatory approval in place. The operative word here is “multiclient”.

Searcher is a provider to the global exploration and production industry. On the West Coast it has been granted exploration rights in an area where 11 rights holders (made up of 16 other companies) have exploration rights. These rights holders include Total, Shell, Kosmos Energy, PetroSA, Africa Oil; Sezigyn; Sunbird, Sungu Sungu, Thombo Petroleum and Tosaco Energy, among others.

Multiple oil and gas companies come together and mandate companies like Searcher to undertake exploration activities on their behalf. Africa is their sweet spot because an increasing number of so-called “developed countries” are no longer tolerating multinationals who are not doing the right thing. 

The attitude and approach of multinationals wanting to operate in Africa needs to fundamentally change. In South Africa it starts with the behaviour of our government, where utterances of the minister of the DMRE, Gwede Mantashe, are so telling that I don’t need to elaborate. A key consideration here is that government makes the decisions and when profits arrive the citizens and affected communities don’t see any of them.

It leads to the proverbial “Dutch disease” we see in many African countries where governments are forceful in trying to crush opposition to poor governance. The domino effect is that many companies and business organisations align themselves with this stance of government. The net socioeconomic impact is the resource curse, where abundant resources coexist with extreme poverty. We need to move beyond this.

Hence the suggestion I made to the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber in response to their request for commentary on the Wild Coast debate was that all exploration should be suspended until there is meaningful contribution and participation of all stakeholders and affected communities, and until an EIA and sufficient baseline studies have been done. We did this in the Karoo with regard to shale gas exploration, and the same needs to be done in the marine environment.

Regrettably, the message is not likely to be heeded until government takes the lead. The knee-jerk reaction of government so far is to talk down to communities and citizens instead of talking with them, and engaging our scientists. DM

AEON ( was established to provide a university-wide research and educational environment to seek consilient knowledge and engagement among earth and life sciences, engineering, resource economics, human and cultural sciences through the application and dissemination of Earth Stewardship Science. Its Iphakade Programme (“Observe the Present and Consider the past to Ponder the Future”) is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation.


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