/ 28 January 2009

Cape whales face new threat

PetroSA’s plan for a liquid natural gas mooring facility in a known whale-breeding site on the Western Cape coast has stirred up an environmental hornet’s nest. Environmentalists warn that the facility, planned for the serene location of Vleesbaai, near Mossel Bay, will disrupt marine life.

The bay is a favourite stop-off point for migrating whales and attracts many whale-watchers. It is considered one of the Western Cape’s last pristine marine areas. Vleesbaai’s residents are against the planned facility, announced in October last year.

“PetroSA’s facility is ill-conceived, short-sighted and environmentally damaging, “said Mareo Bekker, chair of the Rescue Vleesbaai Action Group. He said the plan involved the effective rezoning by stealth of Vleesbaai into an industrial area.

PetroSA says the move is justified because gas reserves off the Mossel Bay coast are dwindling. To prevent the closure of its gas-to-liquids operation it has to bring in additional supplies.

Most of the gas will be used to power Eskom’s Gourikwa power station, which was expanded last year. But critics insist PetroSA’s existing rig could be developed so that gas could be piped from there to the Mossel Bay refinery.

Locals angrily claim that PetroSA has already struck the deals required for the project. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) is still in its infancy, yet allegations are rife that it is window-dressing.

“The EIA process is fatally flawed and should start anew,” Bekker said. “PetroSA has already entered into contracts for the supply of gas and erection of the facilities. We fear the EIA is a smoke screen to appease the public.”

Coastal ecologist Allan Heydorn said he is gravely concerned about the planned facility. Noise and light pollution would affect the whales and dolphins that frequent the bay and also subject them to the risk of entanglement in underwater cables. A fire or explosion would have “catastrophic long-term consequences”, Heydorn warned.

“In the event of either slow and insidious pollution and littering or a catastrophic event, the entire inter- and sub-tidal ecosystem and the near-shore marine food webs will be placed at risk. This would have serious consequences for the coastal ecology and the livelihood of people in terms of fishing.”

Warning that indigenous gas reserves would fall below economic production levels by 2010, PetroSA spokesperson Thabo Masabo said the Mossel Bay refinery would close if the project was thwarted, with the loss of 2 000 jobs.

The project would boost production at the refinery, allowing PetroSA to continue exploring South Africa’s southern and western coasts.

Masabo said the project would boost the economy by delivering much-needed fuel and would bring in R428-million annually to the fiscus. He said PetroSA was aware of the environmental concerns but that the EIA would give a full picture of the impact.

PetroSA was negotiating for the supply of liquid natural gas and the infrastructure, but no final investment decision had been taken.