Offshore Gas Exploration a hole-in-the-wall for Shell

Conservationists, the South African public, and Shell Oils own distributors in the Eastern Cape region are making their voices heard and protesting the decision by Shell Oil to use disruptive seismic surveys in their search for new oil fields off the pristine WildCoast region of South Africa.

Hot off the back of the recent #COP26 Climate Change discussions, Shell Oil were dispatching their vessel to the region, which will set off seismic blasts every 10 seconds, 24-hours a day for the next 6 months throughout a migratory route for whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles and buffering much-fought for Marine Protected Areas (MPs).

The Marine Protetected Areas (MPA) which were declared just over a year ago, help manage part of the marine environment to promote fisheries sustainability, keep marine ecosystems working properly, and protect the range of species living there, helping people to benefit from the ocean.

The IUCN provides a global definition of MPAs and notes that an area needs to meet the IUCN protected area definition to qualify and be recognised as an MPA :““A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.

In South Africa, MPAs are declared through the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act. So it seems ironic that the SA government’s Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe; Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy should even have allowed the Shell Oil exploration to go ahead.

Dr Judy Mann, a highly respected and internationally recognised conservation strategist at Durban-based SAAMBR (South African Association for Marine Biological Research) compiled the five main reasons why South Africa should not start offshore oil and gas exploration along the Wild Coast.

The seismic survey is step one – if oil or gas is found, step two will be exploratory drilling and if that finds sufficient reserves, step three will be extraction. We should not even be starting with step one. South Africa and the world has to move away from its reliance on fossil fuels. While we are concerned about the seismic survey, we are even more concerned about what happens if reserves of oil and gas are found and extraction is started.
1. Coastal MPAs in the area
Due to the conservation importance and uniqueness of this area there are four MPAs adjacent to the proposed survey area. These include, from south to north – Amathole Offshore (extends 50km offshore), Dwesa-Cwebe (extends 14km offshore), Hluleka (extends 11km offshore) and Pondoland (extends 10km offshore). Each of these MPAs protects unique marine biodiversity with a high number of endemic species. The impacts of the sound from the seismic survey travels great distances through water, meaning that the marine life in the MPAs may be impacted, especially in the Amathole Offshore MPA, one of the newest of South Africa’s MPAs and home to unique canyons, deep water corals and gravel habitats that are home to endemic seabreams that occur nowhere else on Earth.
2. The tourism potential of the area will be compromised
The area is also home to one of the most pristine and unspoilt coastlines in the world, an area with unparalleled potential for well-planned ecotourism. This would create sustainable jobs for local community members in an area that sorely needs these opportunities. This area is world famous for the annual sardine run – which attracts tourists from around the world, while the ecotourism potential of the MPAs in the area is just starting to be realised. Ecotourism would provide secure jobs over a longer time period than oil and gas extraction and without destroying the cultural way of life of the region.
3. The area has high levels of biodiversity and endemism
The area is biologically very diverse with a wide variety of algae, invertebrates, fish, sea birds and marine mammals. It is an important transition zone between the warmer sub-tropical and the cooler temperate coastal regions. It also had a high level of endemism – many of the species found in this area are not found anywhere else in the world. Deep-water habitats (> 500 m), in particular, are largely unexplored ecologically, so we do not know exactly what occurs or what ecological processes take place there.
4. The Agulhas Current off the Wild Coast is one of the most powerful and dangerous western boundary currents in the world
We have serious concerns about the risks of drilling for oil offshore of the Wild Coast, given that this region is influenced by one of the fastest-flowing and most powerful oceanic currents in the world – the Agulhas Current. It carries over 75 million cubic metres per second – more than 350 times the flow rate of the Amazon River. This current is not static – it has meanders up to 100 km in width, and while it generally flows from north to south, current reversals are not uncommon, particularly in deeper water. Large-scale eddies peeling off the current complicate the flow, with offshore water frequently reaching our coast. Because this current is so powerful any attempts to contain an accidental spill or normal operational spill would probably be unsuccessful. While, internationally, the risk of a catastrophic blowout (= large-scale oil spill) is rated as very low by environmental impact assessments, this does not consider the greatly increased risks posed by the harsh, unique, physical environment found off the Wild Coast (as its name implies). Importantly, the potential impacts of developing and running shore-based facilities for the processing and transport of oil and gas, should they be found in viable quantities, have not yet even been considered.
5. We should not be exploring for new fossil fuels 
The global market is moving away from fossil fuels given the catastrophic effects of human-induced climate change. Indeed, if South Africa and the world are to meet the goals set by COP26 which has recently concluded in Glasgow, to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C, we must stop relying on fossil fuels. In fact, the international community has just pledged over R131 billion to help South Africa decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. The potential short-term, non-sustainable benefits to be gained from oil and gas are largely outweighed by the environmental risks posed by exploring for, and using these non-renewable energy resources, especially along this vulnerable coastline. It is our opinion that the best way forward for environmental sustainability and local job creation is to expand technology which makes use of renewable energy.
Swell of Protest 

The action against Shell Oil is mounting with the local community planning a march along Wild Coast beaches on Sunday 5 December starts at the Mzamba River Estuary, according to Amadiba Crisis Committee co-founder Nonhle Mbuthuma amidst a swell of supporting campaigners set to demonstrate their disapproval by creating a human wall along the East Coast.

The Amadiba Crisis Committee is no stranger to fighting off the ‘big guns’ having averted government plans to mine Titanium on their lands without proper consultation in 2007.

KZN Coastal Communities Unite 

KZN Mid-South Coast Ocean Supporters NPO (KMOS) will host an ocean gathering which forms part of the nationwide objection taking place along the South African coastline on December 5th. People from all over the coast will gather at their nearest beaches to show their solidarity for the cause. Environmental Conservation NPO, The Bataleurs, will be deploying a squadron of aircraft for a coast-to-coast flyover, taking aerial footage to provide visuals of the power of this movement.

Local Ocean activist Janet Soloman and the Oceans Not Oil South Africa team has been busy gathering signatures and rallying people to join the Dec 5th protests to protect our oceans.

Meanwhile, a group of environmental and human rights organisations have filed an urgent court application to stop the petroleum giant in its tracks. The applicants, represented by law firm Cullinan & Associates, are the Border Deep Sea Angling Association, the Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club, Natural Justice and Greenpeace Africa. filed an urgent “interim-interim” interdict in the Eastern Cape division of the high court to stop Shell from embarking on its months-long seismic testing between Morgans Bay and Port St Johns, which is due to begin on Wednesday.

In a joint statement, the applicants said the commencement of the seismic exploration activities were “prima facie unlawful until Shell has applied for, and obtained” the necessary environmental authorisation in terms of the National Environmental Management Act.


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