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Another seismic battle for South African environmentalists

February 09, 2022
tags:#Africa, #Shell, #oil and gas industry, #activism, #marine wildlife
located:South Africa
by:Cyril Zenda
One battle at a time, South African environmental soldiers have taken their fight to the western front where another seismic survey is threatening the lives of local communities and marine wildlife.

Barely two weeks after South African environmentalists and local communities won a landmark court interdiction stopping global energy giant Royal Dutch Shell Plc. from carrying out a seismic survey for oil and gas on the country’s eastern coast because local communities had not been consulted, the very same environmentalists are back in the courts, this time to stop a much bigger seismic survey on the west coast where local communities were allegedly also kept in the dark.

Searcher Seismic, an Australian geoscience company, is carrying out the controversial seismic activity across the West Coast of South Africa, stretching from Cape Columbine, about 170km north of Cape Town, to Namibia. The area in which the exploration is taking place is called the Orange Basin. Searcher is expected to conduct its survey along approximately 10,000km2 of the roughly 22,000km2 of the Reconnaissance Permit application area. The company will conduct 2D and/or 3D seismic survey programmes between the Orange River mouth and Cape Columbine.

Court Application Filed

It is this exploration work that has infuriated local communities and environmentalists. On 21 January, a motley crowd of 14 applicants - including West Coast fisheries and residents as well as civil society organisations We Are South Africans and The Green Connection - filed an urgent court application to interdict the survey, pending a legal challenge of Searcher’s reconnaissance permit that was granted by the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) in May 2021. Searcher is opposing the application, which is set for hearing on 7 February.

Legal And Environmental Concerns

Gilbert Martin, founder of We Are South Africans, told FairPlanet that they had filed the interdict on the basis that the research to formulate the environmental management programme (EMPr) was out-dated, that there was no meaningful public consultation and that the survey will damage the environment, tourism and fishing industries. 

Ecologists say seismic blasting, which involves firing high-powered air guns every 10 seconds and measuring the echoes to detect cavities under the sea bed, is hurtful to marine life, especially sea mammals, as this causes hearing loss, disturbs their feeding and breeding habits and also interferes with their own communication systems.

The Coastal Justice Network says that some 30 small-scale fishing communities that have longstanding roots along this coastline were not consulted in the process of granting the Australian company environmental rights. Some of these communities include indigenous and traditional fishing communities. 

Martin said they are hoping that an interdict will stop not only Searcher’s seismic survey, but also all other mining or seismic activities through a public oversight committee to oversee improperly conducted processes.

Permit Unlawful

Liziwe McDaid, Strategic Lead at The Green Connection - one of the community-driven environmental justice organisations also involved in the Shell case - said that, according to available information, Searcher did not apply for, nor has it been granted, environmental authorisation under the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).

"As such, we believe that it should not be allowed to commence its seismic survey programme," McDaid said in written answers to FairPlanet. "Furthermore, we believe that it was unlawful to issue the reconnaissance permit without a NEMA environmental authorisation is unlawful, making any related operations unlawful as well."

According to The Green Connection, that particular area has a very rich and productive ecosystem, which underpins much of the commercial fishing industry of South Africa.

"It is outrageous that, so soon after everything wrong with Shell’s application had been exposed, do we find ourselves in a very similar position where government and the oil and gas industry are willing to risk the livelihoods of small-scale fishers," McDaid added.

Pro-Fossils Energy Minister Furious

South Africa’s Mineral Resources and Energy minister, Gwede Mantashe, who has repeatedly expressed his undying love for fossil fuels, recently lashed out at environmentalists that were staging anti-Shell protests, describing them as "apartheid and colonialism of a special type."

Despite South Africa’s climate change commitments, which President Cyril Ramaphosa re-affirmed the recent COP26, Mantashe strangely insisted that his country deserved the opportunity to capitalise on its natural resources including oil and gas.

"I cannot help but ask myself, are these objections meant to ensure the status quo remains in Africa [...] of energy poverty?" Mantashe told a December 09 press conference especially convened to defend Shell’s seismic survey.

"Could it be possible that this is an extreme pure love for the environment, or an unrelenting campaign to ensure Africa and SA do not see the investment inflows they need? We consider the objections to these developments as apartheid and colonialism of a special type, masqueraded as a great interest for environmental protection," Mantashe fumed.

Alleged Corruption

Asked why senior South African government officials were openly siding with energy firms at a time the country should be seen to be taking practical steps away from hydrocarbon energy sources, Martin said these officials were doing so for personal benefit, not for the country.

"Quite simply because they are corrupt and receiving kickbacks, this is not about the benefit of the South African people or the South African economy, I am alarmed that the World Bank and other countries are providing them money based on the fact that it is to reduce our reliance on carbon - this money will be stolen through the government’s corrupt channels and will not reach its intended recipients," Martin wrote in answers to FairPlanet. "In a year or two you can look back and reflect on the above statement and see that I was correct."

His organisation has been running a social media campaign in which it shared what it alleges that businesses with links to some energy firms (Shell) in South Africa recently financially bailed out the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, which had gone for several months without paying its own workers and other financial obligations.

Image by Efe Kurnaz

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
South Africa
Embed from Getty Images
30 small-scale fishing communities that have longstanding roots along South Africa's western coastline were not consulted in the process of granting the Australian company environmental rights.
© ALFREDO ZUNIGA/AFP via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
Despite South Africa’s climate change commitments Mantashe strangely insisted that his country deserved the opportunity to capitalise on its natural resources including oil and gas.
© Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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