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.