by Georgina Crouth and Ed Stoddard, Daily Maverick
January 9, 2023
Almost a year after its efforts to conduct marine seismic surveys were thwarted in the Western Cape High Court, Searcher Geodata has received environmental approval which, if unopposed, will enable the company to search for oil and gas off the West Coast of South Africa.
The 3D surveys, which entail sending powerful blasts of sound — a destructive practice, many suggest — below the seafloor, are envisaged to be conducted along a 30,000km2 stretch of coastline from St Helena Bay to Hondeklip Bay.
The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) slipped in the approval on 20 December 2022 after an application was lodged on 1 November by London-based Searcher Geodata’s newly appointed environmental assessment practitioner (EAP), Environmental Impact Management Services (EIMS).
In an environmental assessment notification dated 6 January, EIMS noted that the period between 15 December to 5 January was specifically excluded from the legal timeframes, which is why the notification could only be sent after 5 January 2023.
Interested and affected parties, including local communities and small-scale fishers, now have until 26 January 2023 to lodge objections to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
To date, seismic surveys have failed to persuade the courts despite DMRE accommodations to the fossil fuel exploration sector and the Petroleum Agency SA’s extensive apportioning of offshore oil and gas rights to 16 companies, including Impact Africa (nearly half-owned by Hosken Consolidated Investments), Total, Tosaco Energy and Shell.
In March last year, small-scale fishers and civil rights organisation, We are South Africans, obtained an interdict barring Searcher Geodata from conducting the surveys off the West Coast, for lack of public consultation.
In his ruling, Judge Daniel Thulare of the Western Cape High Court wrote: “If Searcher truly wanted to ensure that [small-scale fishers] were included in the consultation process, it would have advertised [notices of the survey] in isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans.”
This time, Searcher and EIMS appear to have heeded the judge’s admonition and consulted more extensively, from local municipalities and provincial authorities to (the fisher-driven social enterprise) Abalobi, Green Connection, Groundwork, various fisheries and the World Wildlife Fund.
The appeal, which was lodged on 8 September 2022, included advertisements in all three languages, including details of the public participation process, the impact assessment matrix, environmental management programme and a rehabilitation, decommissioning and closure plan.
Searcher Geodata had not responded to our queries by deadline.
In September 2022, the Makhanda High Court ruled against Shell and Impact Africa, finding that the exploration rights granted to them along the Wild Coast were unlawful.
This court also found there was no meaningful consultation with interested and affected parties prior to the award of the right, and that DMRE Minister Gwede Mantashe — who has been branded a coal fundamentalist — had failed to take into account community cultural rights and environmental harm, particularly to marine and bird life.
Both the Shell court interdict and the Academy of Science of South Africa’s marine scientists believe that seismic surveys cause real harm to marine life.
Scientific risk advisory
In an advisory published in January 2022, 11 marine scientists from the academy’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergency urged the government to reform marine protection legislation, saying the DMRE’s exclusive power to issue oil and gas exploration permits should be revoked because decisions concerning the marine environment “cannot and should not be made by a single government department, as the complex and integrated nature of marine systems demand more integrative decision-making processes amongst all stakeholders”.
The risk advisory said there was a “reasonable apprehension of real harm to marine life if the respondents are permitted to resume their seismic survey.
“Given a relative dearth of evidence on the impact of seismic surveys on marine life in South African waters, coupled with the uncertainties about the harm that may be suffered if Shell’s survey is permitted to resume, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for refusing or postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. Instead, a precautionary approach is warranted.
“No seismic survey should be conducted in South African waters without a preceding comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] report based on the latest science.”
The Green Connection — part of a coalition of environmental and civic organisations opposed to seismic surveys — says it will appeal against the granting the latest project.
The NGO’s Liz McDaid said, “This [decision] is not unexpected, but civil society has put in all our comments. We are still looking at it but we will certainly be appealing to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, which we believe is more objective in terms of assessing which projects should be allowed and shouldn’t be.”
Asked whether the risk to the marine environment was overstated, McDaid said: “One of the things that we have been raising is the precautionary principle in law, which requires that, if there is a strong suspicion that a certain activity may have environmentally harmful consequences, you must show the scientific evidence — not industry-funded research — that it is harmless. Otherwise, if there’s no evidence, then the precautionary principle would say until you can show that it’s fine, you actually shouldn’t go ahead if there are risks.”
McDaid said the SA scientific community has spoken out strongly about the harm inflicted on specific species by the type of sound, the duration and the extent — even years after the fact — and other impacts which are still unknown.
“Off the West Coast, we have got fantastic sea conditions, which enable plankton to bloom. If you blast and kill off a whole lot of these small creatures — and there’s no doubt that they will be badly damaged and die — it could affect the population, later down the line, and affect others up the food chain.
“It’s these kinds of studies that haven’t been done. So there’s a general concern that we are doing the seismic surveys without really understanding the full impact.”
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That is certainly the case in South African waters, and where studies have been done elsewhere, there is no consensus in the peer-reviewed scientific literature on the impact of such surveys on marine life.
Aside from environmental concerns, there are a number of economic factors at play here. On one hand, South Africa needs foreign investment and job creation. On the other, as the global economy decarbonises, any hydrocarbon discoveries that are brought to production risk becoming “stranded assets”.
And oil in Africa has long been linked to corruption and conflict. The ANC is currently talking about “renewal”, but there is a lot of justified scepticism about such rhetoric. Throwing oil into the current political mix seems like a recipe for mischief.
The area of interest for the proposed 3D seismic survey is 30,000km2 in extent, located between 256km offshore from St Helena Bay, extending north to about 220km offshore of Hondeklip Bay. The survey is expected to take about 127 days, including downtime, says the EIMS, using a single survey vessel.
An appeal, including any supporting documentation, must be submitted to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Appeals and Legal Review Directorate, marked for the attention of the Director: Appeals and Legal Review.