/ 12 August 2022

Creecy shoots down Karpowership appeal but extends a lifeline to the project

Interview With Barbara Creecy In South Africa
Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy. (Photo by Ruvan Boshoff/Sunday Times/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Minister of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy has shot down another appeal by the Turkish Karpowership group for ship-mounted gas-fired power plants at harbours in Richards Bay, Ngqura and Saldanha Bay, saying that South Africa’s desperate need for power should not come at the expense of the Constitution or the environment, and subsequently human beings.   

Karpowership won a bid to feed power into Eskom’s grid in a 20-year project and is seeking to supply 1 220 megawatts of electricity to help ease crippling electricity outages. 

Environmental authorisation for the project was first denied in June last year, with the denial of the latest appeal being made public on 1 August.  

Creecy said in her denial of the appeal that the powerships, which fall under the Karadeniz Energy Group, could not override constitutional and environmental laws, which state that each person has a right to clean and healthy air and water, and to the protection of the other natural resources of the nation. 

“I also have the constitutional and legal obligation not to allow a preventable situation in an environment that may potentially harm the health or well-being, in a wide sense, of another person or persons. The need and desirability of a proposed project should also be considered in this context,” she said.

The department has criticised gaps in the group’s consultation processes. It said that requirements were not met, including public participation and the proper evaluation of the potential effects on the environment as well as socioeconomic conditions.

It added that the potential environmental impact of the project could not be properly evaluated because of the lack of a proper underwater noise study and significant gaps and limitations with other assessments.

“The final environmental assessment report was not always entirely convincing in dismissing concerns around heated seawater discharges, which could result in temperature increases of up to 15°C in the vicinity of the powerships,” said Creecy.  

“The ultimate aim of these fundamental rights is not the conservation or protection of the environment for the sake of the environment itself, but the aim thereof is the responsible utilisation of natural resources for satisfying the needs of humans.” 

Creecy has, however, opened the door for the company to rectify its failures. 

In her 108-page response to the appeal, Creecy further said that the country’s energy path did not exclude gas-fired plants, and that Karpowership was not the only entity capable of delivering such a result.  

She said that emitting millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases posed a significant risk to fisheries, birds and marine organisms. This included underwater noise damaging the hearing of marine animals and the damage caused by hot water expulsions from the turbochargers of the ships, exhaust stacks and cooling water circuits.

The additional heat could potentially affect the marine animals and food chain, she said. 

Environmental activists and local fishers have protested the potential harmful impacts on the environment, marine animals and livelihoods. 

Creecy noted that owing to evidence from environmental activists, the final report by the company failed to make a sufficient assessment of underwater noise effects that would be caused by the powerships.

“One of the technical studies noted that marine animals could suffer extensive damage to their hearing systems, haemorrhaging, damage to internal organs and disruption to communication and feeding,” she argued.

She added that one of the specialist reports presented to her also suggested “that additional noise could be disastrous for the ecology if it exceeded ecological thresholds or could not be mitigated”. 

Last year, environmental justice group groundWork said the project was not needed or desired from an energy security and socioeconomic perspective. “Its anticipated harms — for climate, biodiversity and socioeconomic considerations far outweigh any alleged benefits, particularly in light of the feasibility of less harmful alternatives to meet the country’s electricity needs. Due to the unknown noise impacts on fish and local fishermen, the department should take the precautionary and risk-averse approach and uphold the decision to refuse the environmental authorisation.” 

The nonprofit also argued that sound modelling was possible and should have been conducted by the company to determine the potential impacts.

In its appeal, Karpowership had said that it was embarking on further studies on the effects of underwater noise and pleaded with the minister to defer that part of the assessment until the project had been given the go ahead. Creecy said that would only defeat the purpose of the assessment.

Extra lifeline

Despite rejecting the appeal on 1 August, Creecy offered the company an extended lifeline to rectify its failures.

“This should at least be guided by the objective to address the wrong occasioned by the infringement; deter future violations; make an order which can be complied with; and which is fair to all those who might be affected by the relief. Therefore, I have decided to remit the matter to my department so that various gaps and defects in the public procedure process could be addressed during the reconsideration and re-adjudication of the environmental approval process,” she said.

The company has 180 days to take Creecy’s response on judicial review. 

Karpower said it was “disappointed” with the minister’s decision but would press on with obtaining the required authorisation. 

“We respect Minister Creecy’s exercise of her powers, but we are very disappointed with the outlook especially given the time it took to decide. While we disagree with the findings of [the] report, we agree with the independent arbiter that there are no fatal flaws in the Karpowership SA EIA.”

“We appreciate the [department’s] remission of our environmental impact assessment to the competent authority which allows us the opportunity to address perceived gaps and we hope that the process will be much timelier than it has been to date.”

The company said it shared the same mission as the department and other stakeholders, which was to “rapidly provide power to the South African people”, which included the need to ensure environmental protection and sustainable development. 

“To meet these goals, we need a collaborative partner in the government who follows timetables laid out in South African law,” it said.