Editorial: Oil find a mixed blessing

The oceans cover 71% of the Earth. They seem infinite; the kind of place it’s possible to dump waste, endlessly harvest fish and drill for natural resources with little consequence. On Thursday, French oil and gas company Total announced it had found a new, “world-class” reserve about 175km off South Africa’s coast near Mossel Bay.

The country imports most of its oil, and the government has been looking for local reserves for decades. This is the first major find. It’s the kind of discovery that could change South Africa’s fortunes.

Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe tweeted: “It is exciting for our country that this discovery has been made.” He then said government is “moving with speed” to get legislation in place for the petroleum sector.

The worry is that this haste will result in repeating, in the sea, the mistakes made on land. Mining built South Africa’s economy, but it has left a devastating legacy: polluted rivers, toxic air, dying workers and 6 000 abandoned mines. Mining companies are not rushing to rectify these disasters. The profits have been pulled out of the land and are long gone.

Offshore rigs have made some countries rich. They have also proven to be the feeding ground for corrupt elites. The government needs to be very careful about how it moves forward from here. The oceans are big but not so big that their ability to support life — both the oceans’ and ours — cannot be destroyed.

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