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South Africans rise against ‘climate criminal’ Shell

December 17, 2021
topics: Pollution
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: South Africa
tags: Africa, ocean pollution, oil exploration, Royal Dutch Shell

South Africans are up in arms against Shell’s imminent seismic surveys for oil and gas off the country’s eastern coastline.

‘Climate Criminal’ Shell’s Seismic Oil Exploration

“Our ancestors’ blood was spilt protecting our land and sea,” said Reinford Sinegugu Zukulu, a South African traditional leader and director of Sustaining The Wild Coast, one of the South African rights groups that are fighting against the looming start of an offshore seismic survey by Royal Dutch Shell Plc. in a pristine area called The Wild Coast.

“We now feel a sense of duty to protect our land and sea for future generations as well as for the benefit of the planet,” Zukulu insisted in an affidavit that forms part of the latest court battle to save this unspoiled coast that is home to dolphins, whales, seals and penguins among other iconic forms of marine life.

Court Battles, Protests and Petitions

The court battles involving a motley assortment of stakeholders that range from wildlife conservationists, environmentalists, scientists, human rights groups, fishermen and local communities, among others, are just some of many fronts from which South Africans are fighting to stop this project.

On 6 December, hundreds of thousands of South African citizens in 70 towns and cities took to the beaches on the country’s eastern and western coasts to protest against Shell. All the while, an online petition against the project had already garnered more than 400,000 signatures.

Several South African fuel outlets had started severing ties with Shell in protest of the exploration move.

Five Months Of Non-Stop Blasting!

These concerted protests followed the announcement, in mid-November, by Shell that on 1 December it was to commence a seismic survey in search of oil or gas deposits from Morgan Bay to Port St Johns on the country’s eastern coast, based on permits that it got from the government some eight years ago. 

The 3D seismic survey involve the deployment of a vessel operated by Shell Exploration and Production South Africa’s hirelings, Shearwater GeoServices, which - for five months - would drag up to 48 air guns methodically through 6,011 square kilometres of ocean surface, firing extremely loud shock wave emissions that penetrate through 3km of water and 40km into the earth’s crust below the seabed. The ship would work around the clock, firing the air guns every 10 seconds. 

Scientists and environmental experts say as this process takes place, marine life on this sensitive Wild Coast area would be panicked and damaged.

“Many sea creatures could be affected in the coming months - whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, sharks and even crabs and tiny shellfish will be blasted,” said the petition.  

“Shell must answer for how the harms done during this survey and any exploration drilling done hereafter are part of its energy transition plan to control global warming.”

Huge Concentrations Of Marine Mammals 

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), this coastline has some of the largest concentrations of marine mammals in the world, among them humpback whales and dolphins. “It is also home to dozens of endemic species, a host of marine and coastal habitats, and pristine estuaries,” the organisation said. 

It added that the area also forms part of a unique transition zone with elements of subtropical and warm temperate systems. 

“The sardine run that can be seen along this coast - sometimes called ‘the greatest shoal on Earth’ - is unequalled in scale and spectacle, and almost certainly worthy of global heritage status.”

‘Unmitigable’ Negative Impacts

A team of leading South African marine scientists wrote a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, explaining how the project was harmful to marine creatures and the environment immitigable. 

“SA’s marine ecosystems, and the coastal community’s sustainable blue economies that depend on their health, are being threatened by the deployment of offshore seismic surveying,” the letter said. “There is a growing body of evidence pointing to the immediate and long-term, and largely unmitigable, negative impacts of this invasive method on marine creatures. 

“We point out that much of this evidence, and a growing global opposition to this method of surveying [it has been stopped in some countries’ exclusive economic zones], has only come to light after the granting of current permits, notwithstanding their questionable legal status,” the group said.

Shell Pleads “Irreparable Harm”

The ‘climate criminal’ Shell,  which recently abandoned a similar oil exploration in the United Kingdom after serious opposition from environmentalist, is vigorously defending the South African project in courts. Shell's lawyers have been arguing that labouring under the impression that it held a valid permits, the energy giant has spent millions of dollars and entered into costly contractual obligations from which it cannot simply walk away from without severe consequences. 

The lawyers pointed out that a hired seismic testing vessel, the Amazon Warrior, has already arrived at the location and if the project would fail to go ahead, this would “cause irreparable harm” to Shell and its partners arising from the wasted expenditure and planning. 

On 3 December, a regional court judge ruled in favour of Shell when some environmental and climate groups sought to stop the exploration. Not only are the groups appealing the decision, but other groups have since filed similar suits based on different set of arguments.

Legal, Not Ethical

Toast Seagers, one of the South African environmentalists who are livid about the project told FairPlanet that the problem lies more with the government and its custodianship obligations.  

“It’s one of many cases where ‘legal’ is not the same as ‘ethical’ or ‘right’,” Seagers told FairPlanet. 

“I wonder if they [litigants] wouldn’t have more luck challenging it on a constitutional basis. Our Bill of Rights says this: Everyone has the right- (a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing; and (b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that- (i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation; (ii) promote conservation; and (iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

He added that two of the principles of public administration are: (b) Efficient, economic and effective use of resources must be promoted. (c) Public administration must be development-oriented. 

“You could probably argue that this is exactly what the department (of Minerals Resources and Energy) has been looking at when issuing the permits," he added. "Assuming of course that South Africa is benefiting from this exploration. That also seems to be a little unclear. What do we get out of all of this? 

"I am under no illusions that South Africa needs investment and I know that our mineral wealth has the potential to help us tackle our unemployment and fiscal challenges. It’s just frustrating that there seems to be zero political will to move towards a more sustainable future and very little understanding from the top of just how destructive these practices will be in the long term."

Reneging On Climate Commitments

Environmentalists also fear that the exploration is most likely to be followed by oil and or gas extraction with severe consequences to the environment. 

This project is seen as a direct contradiction to South Africa’s pledge at the just-ended-COP26 summit to move away from hydrocarbon-based energy.

“In this regard, WWF does not believe that the development of an expanded fossil gas industry is necessary for South Africa’s energy mix transition, and certainly it is not aligned with South Africa’s recent climate commitments that were made at COP-26,” the WWF-SA said.

“Shell’s activities threaten to destroy the Wild Coast and the lives of the people living there,” said Happy Khambule, senior climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa.

“Shell is a climate criminal, destroying people’s lives and the planet for profit.”

Dr Alex Lenferna, the secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition said the uprising against Shell provides a moment to reckon with the broader corrupted politics of fossil fuel corporations and politicians who are hijacking the future for their own profit. 

"Let us boycott Shell, and then use that momentum to end the fossil fuel era altogether. Let us build in its place a society that is more just, equitable, and powered by renewable energy."

Image by Keming Tan

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
South Africa
Extinction Rebellion Shell Out protest oil logos on 8 September, 2020 in London, United Kingdom.
© Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images
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