Sunday Times

Greens block oil exploratio­n plan off KZN


● Ocean conservati­on groups have halted, for now, a multinatio­nal oil and gas exploratio­n venture off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, charging that it would open the floodgates for further oil drilling before there was a proper evaluation of potentiall­y catastroph­ic environmen­tal damage.

The WildOceans conservati­on alliance lodged an appeal this week with Barbara Creecy, the minister of environmen­tal affairs, forestry & fisheries, against the environmen­tal authorisat­ion granted jointly to Sasol and the Italian multinatio­nal Eni to drill up to six deep-sea exploratio­n wells off the coast of Durban and Richards Bay.

The conservati­on group has enlisted three US oceanograp­hy experts to challenge several aspects of the government authorisat­ion granted two months ago and urged a more cautious approach when drilling at depths of up to 3km below the sea surface in the Agulhas current — one of the world’s most powerful ocean currents.

“This authorisat­ion opens the door to an onslaught of applicatio­ns throughout [SA’s] exclusive economic zone without the necessary baseline assessment­s and knowledge that is required to properly understand the potential impacts of oil exploratio­n off our volatile coastline,” Durban environmen­tal attorneys Kirsten Youens and Adrian Pole say.

“It is effectivel­y telling the world that we are ‘open for business’ without taking into considerat­ion the long-term ramificati­ons of doing so.”

Citing the 87-day-long BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that devastated the marine ecology in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Youens and Pole say the Eni/Sasol “worst-case scenario” for an oil spill during exploratio­n drilling had only modelled a leak lasting between seven and 20 days.

The modelling exercise for the KwaZuluNat­al coastline, done for the two companies via ERM Consultanc­y, is based on assurances from Eni/Sasol that an undergroun­d oil “blowout” could be capped and sealed within 20 days. ERM says comparison­s with the Deepwater Horizon spill cannot be made due to the very different physical conditions.

WildOceans says: “ERM expect WildOceans (and the decisionma­ker) to simply accept Eni’s assumption that a capping stack will be successful­ly installed and the release terminated within 20 days, with no logistical informatio­n provided to substantia­te this claim.”

A capping stack is a device weighing up to 100t used to seal leaking wells.

Sasol referred questions to Eni, which said: “Wherever it operates, Eni undertakes exploratio­n activities according to internatio­nal best practice standards and in accordance with local laws, within the parameters set out by competent authoritie­s and agencies, and engages in dialogue with stakeholde­rs following locally determined norms, as well as recognised best practices.

“We acknowledg­e a number of appeals have been lodged … All appeals will be responded to in line with the provisions set out in the appeal regulation­s and administer­ed through the appeals directorat­e.”

According to one of the experts advising WildOceans, Professor Claire Paris of the University of Miami’s ocean sciences department, extreme sea conditions off the South African coast would prevent a rapid or efficient emergency response in the event of a major underwater spill.

US marine expert Professor Erik Cordes says a large spill or blowout could have major consequenc­es from the shoreline to the deep sea — and that up to 50% of the liquid hydrocarbo­ns and gases that escaped during the Deepwater Horizon leak had remained in the deep ocean.

This underwater pollution would include blizzards of “black marine snow” and toxic gases that could harm marine creatures. Cordes says the environmen­tal impact assessment (EIA) study only deals with the impacts of a surface oil slick and makes no prediction­s for the distributi­on or impacts on the seafloor.

Professor Annalisa Bracco of the Georgia Institute of Technology says oil could reach the shoreline much faster than model prediction­s if a leak occurs near the core of the powerful Agulhas current.

Youens and Pole say the EIA should have included a detailed examinatio­n of the climate change impacts of further oil extraction.

Currently, oil and gas production off SA is largely restricted to a small section of ocean between Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth. Five years ago, former president Jacob Zuma announced plans to drill at least 30 deep-water oil and gas exploratio­n wells as part of Operation Phakisa, a project to exploit the economic potential of the oceans.

Creecy has given Eni and Sasol until November 11 to respond to the appeal submitted by WildOceans and 46 other appellants. Should the appeal fail, WildOceans can take further action in the high court.

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