Nica Richards
Deputy online news editor
4 minute read
1 Dec 2021
3:20 pm

EXPLAINER: Shell’s seismic tests in the Wild Coast

Nica Richards

Four organisations have filed an urgent interdict in an attempt to half Shell's potentially harmful seismic blasting survey, which is set to start today.

A number of protests have taken place from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape in opposition to Shell's planned seismic blasting along the Wild Coast. Picture: Twitter/@WILDOCEANSSA

In seeming stark contradiction to the recent 26th United Nations climate change conference (COP26) outcomes, South Africa will from today be at the mercy of Royal Dutch Shell’s planned 3D seismic survey in the Transkei exploration area off the east coast. 

Seismic surveys, or seismic blasting, involves loud, repetitive airgun blasts being hurtled towards the seafloor as often as every 10 seconds. 

According to Shell’s Exploration Right 12/3/242, the blasts are set to continue over the next four to five months. 

Urgent interdict filed in attempt to halt Shell’s seismic survey
Source: Oceana

A notification appeared in the Daily Dispatch on 2 November, but the authorisation to conduct the survey had been looming, unbeknownst to most, for years. 

Urgent interdict filed in attempt to halt Shell’s seismic survey
Picture: Oceans Not Oil

Greenpeace reports the go-ahead was given under former president Jacob Zuma’s administration by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy without full stakeholder input or objections, under Operation Phakisa. 

Environmental NGO Natural Justice and law firm Cullinan & Associates, on 18 November, queried the renewal of exploration rights without prior notice, public participation or community consultation. 

ALSO READ: Shell seismic survey prompts boycotts and protests

Urgent interdict filed 

After reportedly not receiving any responses, an urgent interdict was filed on 29 November.

Papers were filed at the Grahamstown High Court and arguments were set to be heard virtually from 2pm on Wednesday. 

The applicants are Natural Justice, Greenpeace Africa, Border Deep Sea Angling Association and Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club. 

These four organisations feel the seismic exploration activities are “unlawful” until Shell applies for environmental authorisation under the National Environmental Management Act (Nema). 

The renewal of exploration rights is also in contention. 

“We also believe that the decision-making process amounts to unjust administrative action since interested and affected parties were not informed of the granting of the exploration right or given an opportunity to appeal it.”

Applicants plan to present evidence on the “irrational and socially unjust” reasoning behind oil and gas exploration, at a time when the world is scrambling for sustainable energy alternatives. 

ALSO READ: SA can’t have a just energy transition without ‘support from wealthier nations’

“Shell’s activities threaten to destroy the Wild Coast and the lives of the people living there,” Greenpeace Africa’s senior climate and energy campaign manager, Happy Khambule, said in a statement.

“We know that Shell is a climate criminal, destroying people’s lives and the planet for profit. South Africa’s problems do not require violent extraction nor destruction of the environment and community livelihoods. 

Should oil or gas be found along the biodiverse Wild Coast, the second step would be exploratory drilling and step three would be extraction. 

South African Association for Biological Research (SAAMBR) conservation strategist Dr Judy Mann said the world had to move away from its fossil fuel reliance. 

“While we are concerned about the seismic survey, we are even more concerned about what happens if reserves of oil and gas are found and extraction is started.”

SA’s contradictions rife

During a COP26 debriefing session last month, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy said South Africa would commit to doing its “fair share” in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, but pointed to developed nations having to do more. 

Creecy also said countries giving instructions on just transitions were not doing so themselves. 

She was referencing the amount of new oil and gas explorations currently taking place in the UK and US – without mentioning Shell’s planned exploration activities and their potentially harmful impact on the country’s wildlife.

ALSO READ: Why should Africa pay for developed nations’ emissions? Creecy asks

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries said in a statement last Monday it “noted concerns” about the survey, but said it had been authorised under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA). 

Essentially, this means it does not fall under the environment department’s jurisdiction, but under the Department of Mineral Resource and Energy.

“The minister responsible for environmental affairs is not mandated to consider the application or to make a decision on the authorisation of the seismic survey…

“All decisions made under the MPRDA at the time remain valid and binding, until set aside by a court of law,” the department said.