Court truncates Shell’s oil exploration move in South Africa

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South African High Court has ordered Shell to immediately put in abeyance its seismic survey along the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape until it has undertaken a full environmental impact assessment and adequate public consultation.

The Grahamstown High Court in Makhanda ordered the oil giant and its project partner, Impact Africa, to immediately cease their seismic survey under exploration right 12/3/252 until they have obtained environmental authorisation under the National Environmental Management Act.

The ruling marks a major win for environmental activists and coastal communities, as well as small-scale fishing and tourism industries along South Africa’s eastern coast. It is the second application for an urgent interdict to stop Shell’s seismic survey in less than a month.

Judge Gerald Bloem found that Shell’s exploration right was “unlawful and invalid” because the company had failed to meaningfully consult with the communities and individuals who would be impacted by the seismic survey.

The applicants provided a “massive body of expert evidence” on the threat of harm to marine life against which Shell’s denial that its activities will have an adverse impact cannot be sustained, the judge said.

“This evidence establishes that, without intervention by the court, there is a real threat that the marine life would be irreparably harmed by the seismic survey,” the judge found.

In addition, the applicants also established that the seismic survey would negatively impact the livelihood of small-scale fishers and harm communities’ cultural and spiritual beliefs.

The application was brought on behalf of non-profit Sustaining the Wild Coast as well as the Amadiba, Dwesa-Cwebe, Port Saint Johns and Kei Mouth fishing communities by the Legal Resources Centre and Richard Spoor Attorneys.

Because minister of mineral resources and energy Gwede Mantashe also opposed the application the judge ordered both the minister and Shell to pay the applicants’ costs.

The nearly five months-long survey was to be undertaken in a 6,000km² area in the Transkei exploration block. It consists of a research vessel firing air guns every 10 seconds, creating shock waves that penetrate through 3km of water and 40km into the earth’s crust.

The survey started on 8 December after an earlier court application for an urgent interdict was denied on the basis that “irreparable harm” to marine species was not proved. This first application was brought by Cullinan and Associates for Greenpeace Africa, Natural Justice, the Border Deep Sea Angling Association and the Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club. Last week these applicants filed for leave to appeal the judgement.

The seismic survey triggered widespread public opposition and nationwide protests due to concerns that the powerful, deep water blasting could irreparably harm marine life, as well as small-scale fishing and the tourism industry.

The Wild Coast is one of South Africa’s biodiversity hotspots that houses many endangered marine species as well as four marine protected areas. To date, a petition has attracted over 440,000 signatures and 18,500 written objections.

An environmental impact assessment in 2013 resulted in the approval of an Environmental Management Programme (EMPr) in 2014. An independent audit was also carried out in 2020 to test the efficacy of the EMPr’s mitigation measures.

But marine experts say research on the effects of seismic testing on marine ecosystems has progressed significantly since 2013 and so the EMPr is outdated. They also say that Shell’s proposed mitigation measures will be ineffective as they are not based on current science or acoustic modelling.

Shell entered the South African offshore exploration sector in November 2020 when it acquired a 50 per cent operating stake in the Transkei and Algoa blocks, off the east coast. UK-based independent Impact Oil and Gas holds the remaining 50pc interest.

The Transkei block is northeast of Algoa in the Natal Trough Basin, where Impact has identified what it calls “highly material prospectivity.”

The Algoa block is in the South Outeniqua Basin, a short distance east from Block 11B/12B that contains the Brulpadda and Luiperd exploration wells, where Total has made significant gas condensate discoveries.