/ 27 November 2023

Groups appeal Karpowership environmental nod for Richards Bay

Tank pipework onboard the Karmol LNGT Powership Asia floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU), operated by Karpowership, viewed from the ship's bridge whilst docked at Cape Town port in Cape Town, South Africa. Photographer: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Environmental and social justice organisations have mounted a new challenge to the environmental approval that was granted for Karpowership SA’s development of a floating gas-to-power plant at the port of Richards Bay.

On Thursday, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), announced that they had submitted an appeal against the environmental authorisation for the proposed powership project with Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy. 

In October, Creecy granted environmental authorisation for the planned 450 megawatts Richards Bay project. This appeal process will suspend the environmental authorisation until the appeal is finalised, adding yet another delay to the controversial multibillion project.

The appeal, which lists 15 grounds, comes as Karpowership SA announced on Friday that it had secured its second environmental authorisation from the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment for its 320MW Saldanha Bay project.

In March 2021, Karpowership was selected as a preferred bidder under the department of mineral resources and energy’s emergency procurement programme to provide 1 220MW of electricity through its three powership projects at the ports of Richards Bay, Saldanha Bay and Ngqura.

The non-profit groups said their appeal was supported by three additional organisations with similar objectives — Natural Justice, the Green Connection and Oceans Not Oil

“This is the second time that the Turkish-owned company has attempted to obtain an environmental authorisation, with a previous attempt being refused, initially by the department [of forestry, fisheries and the environment], and then by the minister on appeal,” they said in a statement. 

“Despite being given clear directions on how to remedy the defects in its applications, Karpowership, via its appointed environmental assessment practitioner, a company called Triplo 4, continues to make fundamental errors, omit required processes and take illegal steps.”

The appellants said their appeal raised numerous points about the “defectiveness of the prescribed public participation process”, including the lack of adequate consultation with local fishing communities, whose livelihood, cultural ways of life and food security may be affected. 

“The minister herself, at an earlier stage of the process, found that consultations with affected local fishing communities were woefully inadequate and did not meet the minimum prescribed legal standard. This was not rectified in the latest attempt to obtain the environmental authorisation.” 

There had also been a lack of consultation around the controversial biodiversity offset, which has been shrouded in secrecy and brought in at a very late stage. 

“This purported offset mechanism whereby the company allegedly bought a Madaka game farm … for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife … is supposed to compensate for the biodiversity loss that the project will cause to the sensitive estuarine ecosystem in and around the port, in turn devastating critical fish nurseries that stock at least 300km of coastline,” said the appellants, who also highlighted errors in the climate change impact assessment. 

Karpowership, they maintained, is a “flawed and expensive approach” to addressing the electricity crisis, and has the potential to lock the country into an exorbitant contract for many years to come. 

Karpowership SA said it acknowledged the challenge from “so-called civil society groups” regarding the environmental authorisation for its Richards Bay project. 

“While we respect any role in protecting the environment, these groups’ continuous challenges fail to substantively counter the exhaustive environmental impact assessment (EIA) methodology, which is based on comprehensive research and enhanced public participation,” it said, adding that the quality of its environmental authorisation was recognised by the department’s decision to grant approval.

That the department has issued the provisional atmospheric emission licence for its project in Richards Bay, provides “unequivocal evidence of our adherence to required environmental laws and standards”, the company said. 

“Our focus remains on finalising agreements to reach financial close and to contribute to eliminating load-shedding and promoting economic growth in South Africa.”

Peter Mbelengwa, the department’s spokesperson, confirmed that it had received an appeals application over granting environmental authorisation for Karpowership’s Richards Bay project from the Biodiversity Law Centre and the CER. 

“Additionally, the department had issued Karpowership with the provisional atmospheric emission licence. However, since there has been an appeal lodged against the decision to grant environmental impact assessment for Richards Bay, the PAEL is now in abeyance until the appeal process is finalised.”

Should the appeal be dismissed, the appellants would be able to approach the high court in a review application.

On Friday, Karpowership SA said it welcomed the second environmental authorisation, for its Saldanha Bay project, granted by the department. “This represents yet another substantial step in bringing much-needed power to the South African grid via the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme.”

The authorisation of the two EIAs brings Karpowership SA “closer to fulfilling its commitment to power beyond the grid and empowering local communities through job creation and socio-economic development initiatives”, it added.