Shell’s Wild Coast exploration draws mounting public ire

Shell South Africa chairperson Hloniphizwe Mtolo says he is “surprised” by the wave of opposition to his company’s plans to conduct seismic blasting in the pristine coastal waters off the Wild Coast to search for oil and gas.

The petroleum giant plans to start its four to five-month 3D seismic survey, which  between Morgan Bay and Port St Johns on Wednesday, 1 December. The survey area is more than 20km from the coast at its closest point in water depths ranging from 700m to 3,000m and will cover 6,011 square kilometres.

These surveys produce loud shots every 10 seconds and can continue for months at a time, “resulting in prolonged effects on marine life”, according to a University of Pretoria researcher.

By yesterday, an online petition had garnered more than 292 000 signatures, demanding the government withdraw Shell’s approvals for the project, while a fleet of protests are planned next week by residents, fishing communities and environmental groups.

“I understand how people are feeling about this,” Mtolo told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday. “But I can assure you that if it was unsafe Shell wouldn’t be doing it. I myself, as a South African that comes not too far from the Wild Coast [Ixopo] where I was born and grew up, I’m very sensitive to the way that people feel. However, we believe that we’ve done all that is necessary for us to make sure that we mitigate any harm and that we are compliant as far as regulation is concerned …

“We’ve heard a lot of people say they are unhappy about this and we understand where they’re coming from. We also respect the rights of people to boycott [Shell] or express their views but we strongly believe that at the end of the day the reason this is being done is because there is a sink that potentially has hydrocarbons below the seabed. If this is the case, this will benefit the economy in a huge way. It will create jobs and ensure the future of the country is positive … It’s important that we understand that we suspect that there is great potential there.” 

Shell is ‘not welcome’ — Amadiba Crisis Committee

Nonhle Mbuthuma, the co-founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which is planning a protest march on 5 December, said oil and gas projects in the region are not necessary. 

“There is no need for this project — the Wild Coast doesn’t deserve any destruction,” she said. “I understand the point of the government right now in trying to solve the economic crisis but this is not the solution and will cause huge damage to livelihoods. 

“We don’t need short-term jobs. We need sustainable development that is environmentally friendly as we are faced with global warming and cannot allow our own government to promote extravism,” she said. “I don’t think they [Shell] understand the relationship between human beings and nature.” 

Human beings, she said, cannot survive without nature. “But nature can survive without human beings. If you destroy nature, you destroy a human being.”

According to the committee, the high-noise blasting of sonar canons underwater for seismic testing is a “direct threat to whales, dolphins, our famous kingfish and all kinds of marine life, and threatens the livelihood of communities along the Wild Coast and in KwaZulu-Natal that use the riches of the sea to put food on the table and to get an income.

“This is our ‘ocean’s economy’. It is about food, not about mining the ocean to make profit for the minority rich who think you can eat money … For over two decades, the coastal Amadiba community has fought against opencast mining on our land. Now we also must fight against mining of the ocean.”

Shell ‘a leader in safely conducting seismic surveys’

Shell, Mtolo said, is targeting a specific area within its exploration block where it believes there may be potential hydrocarbon deposits beneath the seabed “to understand if there could be commercially viable resources”. 

“We need to build up an image of what the sub-surface looks like in our targeted survey area. To image the subsurface, one needs to undertake a seismic survey. This is a way of collecting that data. This data from the survey is then interpreted to try and find specific locations where there may be prospective resources.

“This is not the first time that surveys of this kind are done. We do thousands of these and thousands are done across the globe. A large portion of the public does not understand this is something that can be done in the course of the day but most importantly the extent that companies, and Shell being the lead one in this space, goes through in terms of making sure that there is no harm to sea life and no harm to the environment. We do it correctly and in a manner that is in line with global best practice.”

An exclusion zone of 500m, he said, will be created around the sound source, which is monitored continuously by  independent marine mammal observers to ensure that no animals enter it. “If an animal does come into the exclusion zone, the actual sound initiative is actually stopped until the animal leaves the exclusion zone. When this animal leaves the exclusion zone, then we again start in a very soft process, then that is escalated to the required level in due course.

“We need to co-exist with nature.  As Shell … when we do these kinds of activities, we do the best that we can to make sure that we do not harm other species and the environment.” 

Gas, oil important for SA, says Shell

In a report earlier this year, the International Energy Agency called for the end from this year of all new investments in fossil fuels, including oil and gas, driving climate change.

But Mtolo said that gas and oil are important for energy security in South Africa. “Yes, we are all very focused on renewables in the future, but how do we satisfy the energy needs in the short term? If there’s a gas find there, gas will actually be playing a critical role in the Just Transition and that should be also understood in this manner — that there’s potential for gas or it might be oil. We don’t know at this stage but either/or, they are both going to be beneficial for the energy mix of this country going forward.”

In a position statement this week, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) said that it is “unreservedly opposed” to 3D seismic surveys for oil and gas in the Wild Coast region and elsewhere off the coast of South Africa. 

“South Africa as a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, COP26, and as a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN] has aligned and committed to divestment in fossil fuels and a just energy transition to renewable energies and lower carbon emissions. 

Operation Phakisa’s gas and oil exploration and extraction are contrary to the Paris Agreement in that the oil extraction targets, if realised, will dramatically increase emissions; and the IUCN resolution … urging all members of the IUCN to facilitate the adoption of the precautionary principle with respect to deep-sea mining and to support and implement a moratorium on deep seabed mining.”

‘We did consult widely’

According to Shell, its planned seismic survey is under an approved environmental management programme (EMPr), which has undergone public consultation as part of the 2013 EMPr process undertaken in terms of the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act and as part of the 2020 EMPr compliance audit process undertaken in terms of the environmental impact assessment regulations 2014.

“We believe we’ve consulted widely and enough and that we have followed all the guidelines of public participation of stakeholders of this nature requires and we’ve met those,” Mtolo said.

But, Mbuthuma responded: “It’s strange because as people who are living along the coast, I haven’t heard any of the public consultation. There has not even been one public hearing but yet we are living here for centuries … These days, I fully understand what consultation means to the government. They always invite only so-called business people and then at the end of day they say ‘we consulted communities’. But consultation is about affected communities.”

Disruptions to marine ecosystems

Seismic surveys, Wessa said, disrupt and potentially destroy healthy marine ecosystems.  “Seismic activity affects marine species in a variety of ways that jeopardise their survival. Noise pollution and shock waves lead to stress, disorientation, embolisms and tissue damage, larvae deformity and species displacement. These have been recorded across all levels of the marine ecosystem. 

“While some attention, albeit inadequate, has been paid to whales and dolphins, an ecosystems approach to the protection of our marine resources has not been properly adopted. For example, zooplankton is critical to both the health and the productivity of our marine ecosystems.” 

Marine fauna use sound for many functions

In a March 2021 article on seismic surveys and their effects on marine life, Jean Purdon, who is completing her PhD at the University of Pretoria, focusing on acoustic pollution in the marine environment, described how marine fauna use sound for many functions. 

“For example, dolphins and toothed whales can acoustically ‘visualise’ their surroundings and locate food through echolocation, baleen whales communicate with each other through calls that travel long distances, while some fish and invertebrates use sound to attract mates and ward off predators. 

“Given the importance of sound to these animals, we can begin to get a picture of how seismic surveys could affect them. Seismic surveys can result in animals either losing their hearing completely … or temporarily. They have also been shown to cause the death of zooplankton, krill and some fish species.”

This in turn, she wrote, has an effect on ocean productivity, decreasing food supplies for many marine animals. Seismic surveys can also result in disorientation of deep-diving toothed whales, causing them to swim up to the surface very fast. 

“Because of the pressure that these animals are subjected to deep in the ocean, nitrogen gas bubbles develop in their bloodstream if they rise to the surface too quickly — in the same way that human divers get the bends’ — and this may result in whale deaths or mass strandings.

Loud shots every 10 seconds

Seismic surveys produce loud shots every 10 seconds and can continue for months at a time, resulting in prolonged effects on marine life. 

“Low-frequency seismic pulses cause large baleen whales to start avoiding the area and their communication may decrease or increase, signifying elevated stress levels. Stress could similarly affect foraging success and the ability to produce offspring in other animals.”

A study on critically endangered African penguins breeding on Bird Island and St Croix Island in Algoa Bay showed that seismic surveys less than 100km away caused the penguins to divert from their primary foraging areas. “Some seismic surveys have occurred 25km away from Bird Island, which is worrisome as this could severely affect their foraging ability and reproduction in the future, especially during the breeding season when the adults stay closer to the islands to care for their chicks.”

Negative effects on entire ecosystem

Seismic surveys typically operate 24 hours a day in South African waters, and it is likely that the continual loud banging has a negative effect on the entire ecosystem, although this is very hard to measure and monitor, she wrote. Companies conducting these surveys are legally obliged to obtain an environmental management plan (EMP) from an independent company that is registered to conduct EMPs, which provide guidelines on how best to reduce the environmental impact.

The EMP usually states that the survey vessel must have marine mammal observers (MMOs) on duty during the day and passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) operators on duty during the day and night. “The MMOs keep a visual lookout for marine fauna using binoculars, while the PAM operators use a hydrophone connected to a computer to monitor whale and dolphin calls. The EMP also stipulates rules and regulations on how the airguns should be started to help protect marine fauna. 

“The MMO and PAM operators check that the airguns start ‘firing’ slowly so that the noise causes any animals in the area to move away. In addition, the MMOs and PAM operators are required to monitor a mitigation zone, usually 500m in diameter. If they see or hear any animals within this zone, they are required to advise the seismic survey company to stop the airguns until the animals have left the zone.”

More research needed

For many years, Purdon was an MMO and PAM operator, which led her to continue to research noise pollution in South Africa’s oceans. “However, I realise that oil and gas are essential in our everyday lives — to travel, to heat, to cool, to manufacture, even to brush our teeth with plastic toothbrushes,” she wrote.

“The oil and gas industry itself is huge, and many people’s livelihoods depend on it. The renewable energy industry is developing rapidly, but wind and solar power is still not produced at a rate that is required for our planet of over seven billion people. I found that the crews on seismic survey vessels are also concerned about and care for the welfare of marine life, and they do try to adhere to the suggestions and recommendations made by the MMOs and PAM operators. 

She wrote how she felt it is important for her to work closely with this industry to “try to mesh the need for oil and gas with the need to conserve our ocean environment”. 

“It is clear that more research needs to be conducted to fully understand the impacts of sound on marine organisms, so we can protect and safeguard South Africa’s ocean life for future generations.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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