Mantashe comments on objections to Shell seismic survey ‘astounding’

A non-profit environmental justice group said it was shocked by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe’s description of anti-Shell protests “as apartheid and colonialism of a special type”.

On Thursday, Mantashe convened a media briefing in response to what he called the “unrelenting attacks on oil and gas development in South Africa”, particularly around Shell’s offshore 3D seismic survey for oil and gas in the sensitive, biodiversity-rich waters of the Wild Coast.

South Africa, Mantashe said, deserved the opportunity to capitalise on its natural resources including oil and gas, as these had been proven to be game changers elsewhere.

“We consider the objections to these developments as apartheid and colonialism of a special type, masqueraded as a great interest for environmental protection,” he said.

South Africa’s economic development, he said, was “oppressed in the name of environmental protection” when the country had an environmental framework that ensured “licensing is done with the utmost environmental care”.

Mantashe’s comments were uncalled-for, said Neville van Rooy, the community outreach coordinator for the Green Connection.

“They (government) are siding with the industry instead of the will of the people. To us, it’s more like they are not respecting people’s rights and that’s the concern for us, because the community is still crying that they have not been consulted …On the Wild Coast, you have people who have built their lives around the ocean, they don’t know anything else. If the ocean is trashed, what will people live from?” Van Rooy said.

During his briefing, Mantashe said seismic surveys had been undertaken for decades globally in search of oil and gas and there was no conclusive evidence or scientific research globally demonstrating they had caused irreparable harm to marine life, including mammals and fish.

“The applications of all these seismic surveys worldwide have not been met with the resistance we are seeing in our upstream petroleum space. I cannot help but ask, are these objections meant to ensure the status quo remains in Africa, in general, and South Africa, in particular … with regards to energy poverty, high unemployment, high debt-to-GDP ratio at country level and economies that are not growing? Could it be possible that this is an extreme pure love for the environment or an unrelenting campaign to ensure that Africa and South Africa do not see the investment inflows they need?”

‘Astounding’

“What astounds us is the nature of Minister Gwede Mantashe’s statements,” Liz McDaid, the strategic lead of the Green Connection, said in a statement. 

She said research conducted by the World Bank last year on 12 sub-Saharan countries that discovered considerable oil and gas resources between 2002 and 2020 revealed that “the resources were overvalued, the timeline from discovery to production took longer than expected, and that government revenues were lower than predicted”. 

The most recent revenue projection is on average 63% lower than was initially estimated, she said. 

According to Mantashe, the acceleration of gas development projects will be crucial in South Africa’s just energy transition as gas could be a bridging fuel towards a lower carbon economy.

McDaid wondered why the government “continues to push the country towards a climate change disaster by promoting a fossil fuel economy”, instead of looking at greener energy options and the economic opportunities they present. 

“We believe that oil and gas exploration and production is not in the public interest, and that the long-term, intergenerational damage it results in cannot be compensated for by short-term profits.”

Earlier this month, a large group of South Africa’s leading marine scientists and coastal management experts wrote an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, describing how marine ecosystems were being threatened by the deployment of offshore seismic surveying. 

“Seismic surveying, which employs large arrays of air guns that produce high-amplitude, low-frequency pulses … every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day and for months on end — over extensive areas of ocean is fundamentally damaging to marine ecosystems,” they said.

The letter said there was a growing body of evidence pointing to the immediate and long-term and “largely unmitigable, negative impacts (including irreparable harm) of this invasive method on marine creatures, from large (including acoustically sensitive whales and dolphins) to small (e.g. plankton, upon which all ocean trophic systems depend), that make up our valuable marine ecosystems, and upon which our coastal communities and economies depend”.

This letter forms part of the second urgent application to interdict Shell from continuing its seismic survey, which will be heard in the Makhanda high court on Friday. The case includes testimony from various experts, showing evidence of the irreparable harm caused by seismic surveys.

The court case centres on the argument by the applicants that the company’s offshore activities are unlawful and will cause significant harm to the environment, livelihoods, culture and heritage of communities along the region, particularly small-scale fishers.

Shell’s own open letter

In an open letter of its own, published in the Sunday Times, Shell South Africa chair Hloniphizwe Mtolo said finding resources offshore could significantly contribute to South Africa’s energy independence, as well as the government’s economic development programmes, while providing many local job opportunities. 

Offshore seismic surveys, he said, were a safe mapping technique for gathering information about whether oil or gas may be present deep below the seabed of a given area using soundwaves that are directed downwards: “In 2020 alone, there were at least 325 seismic surveys conducted globally with no known harm to marine life as a result of these surveys.”

Shell, Mtolo said, has extensive experience in collecting offshore data from these surveys, globally and in the region, and “we continue to take great care to prevent or minimise impacts on fish, marine mammals and other wildlife. We have conducted an environmental study in line with local requirements and obtained a legal permit to carry out the activity, something that was reconfirmed by a court decision last week”. 

He said the survey would be conducted outside of the sensitive environmental window period for migrating whales and would take place between 20km and 70km from the shore to ensure that there was no impact on small-scale fishing. 

“We have appointed an independent team to join us onboard the ship conducting the survey who will monitor for the presence of marine mammals before, and during, the seismic activity. If they spot them, we will stop and wait. A variety of additional measures have been put in place, such as starting the sound waves at a lower volume and gradually increasing it before the survey properly begins,” he said.

Van Rooy vowed that the fight would not be over “until this boat [Shell’s seismic testing vessel] is out of our waters because we want alternative ways of exploring for energy such as renewables and even tidal energy technology”.

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

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