About 500 people filled Surfer’s Corner in Muizenberg on Sunday to protest against to Shell’s plans for 3D seismic surveys off the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast.
Shell is in search of oil or gas deposits from Morgan Bay to Port St Johns.
The Muizenberg protest was one of more than 70 all along the coastline.
A petition drawn up by 33-member coalition, Oceans not Oil, against Shell’s plans has garnered nearly 400 000 signatures and 18 500 written objections.
Elaine Mills, of Greenpeace Cape Town, said that for five months, a vessel commissioned by Shell and operated by Shearwater GeoServices would drag up to 48 air guns, firing loud shock waves through 6 000km² of ocean surface.
“These sound waves penetrate through 3km of water and 40km below the seabed. The ship will work around the clock, firing the airguns every 10 seconds,” Ms Mills said.
Protesters believe that this deep-water airgun blasting will irreparably harm the Wild Coast’s delicate ecosystem, which houses many endangered and protected marine species as well as being home to four marine protected areas.
Ms Mills said that marine mammals such as whales and dolphins relied on sound to navigate, communicate, feed and breed, and that they were acutely sensitive to acoustic disturbance.
“There is substantial scientific evidence that seismic blasting can disturb essential behaviours and result in tissue damage, concussion, irreversible hearing loss, organ rupture and mass stranding. It also kills whales’ primary food source, krill, as well as plankton that forms the basis of the food chain on which all marine life depends,” she said.
In a blow to the protesters, on Friday December 3, the Makhanda High Court struck down an application brought by environmentalists to stop the oil company’s search for gas or oil on the Wild Coast.
Acting Judge Avinash Govindjee said the applicants’ argument that it would cause irreparable harm to the marine environment, especially migrating humpback whales, was unproven.
There will, however, be a second application for an urgent interdict, heard on Tuesday, December 14, submitted by Sustaining the Wild Coast, All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice and representatives of the Amadiba Crisis Committee and fishing communities of Port St Johns and Kei Mouth.
Environmental law firm Cullinan & Associates, representing Greenpeace Africa, Natural Justice, the Border Deep Sea Angling Association and the Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club, were dismayed that the court did not grant their request to be allowed to return with scientific evidence of harm.
Cormac Cullinan, director of Cullinan and Associates, attended the event in Muizenberg. He said environmental law had changed since 2014 when Shell had received their initial exploration permits.
South Africa has since adopted the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), which requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to obtain environmental authorisation. Mr Cullinan said from Muizenberg that he believes the court will honour the second application and recognise that this initial ruling was made erroneously.
Ms Mills said an EIA of a seismic survey along the Wild Coast was never undertaken, which meant the potential full detrimental impact of Shell’s activities was unknown.
Dr Serena Lucrezi, an environmental and social scientist working for Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES) at the North-West University, disagreed with Shell that it was possible to drive away species by slowly increasing sound levels – called a soft start – before the proper seismic survey using airgun blasts began.
“This has been disproven, and there is a huge concern for species that cannot move away from seismic survey areas, such as juveniles and invertebrates,” said Dr Lucrezi.
Shell said on its website that they needed to build up an image of what the subsurface looked like to understand whether there could be viable hydrocarbon deposits in the survey area.
Their explanation of the process is that that seismic waves are emitted from a sound source at the back of a seismic vessel and sent below ground.
As the sound waves move through the various geological formations, part of the energy is transmitted down to deeper layers, while the remainder is reflected back up to the surface. The reflected waves are picked up by a series of sensitive receivers. The seismic data are then analysed to identify whether there are potential hydrocarbons.
The company said South Africa had already had many similar offshore surveys safely completed.
It said that South Africa was highly reliant on energy imports for some energy needs and that, should commercially viable resources be found offshore, they could significantly contribute to South Africa’s energy security and the government’s economic development programmes, while supporting local employment.
In an open letter to the government, 24 leading South African marine scientists, marine legal and coastal zone management experts raised their concerns and stated that the approval of the exploratory surveys clearly contradicted South Africa’s agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in October, to move away from hydro-carbon-based energy towards renewable energies.
They asked for all planned seismic surveys to be stopped until South Africa had a clear policy position on oil-and-gas exploration that was aligned with its climate-change commitments. They want to amend the EIA regulations to include seismic surveys and, among other things, to review the One Environmental System that allows the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy to authorise environmental applications for seismic surveys.
They also asked for the government to consider the use of alternative, less harmful technologies and to commission a strategic environmental assessment of all current and future seismic surveys for South Africa, to determine key environmental and social constraints and sensitivities.
Ms Mills said she was very passionate about protecting the environment and curbing climate change. “Not only because I love nature and animals, but also because our very survival and that of all the other species who inhabit this earth depend on it,” she said.