Deep sea Durban drilling threatens environment – and communities

2014-08-10 06:00

Operation Phakisa, government’s plan to fast-track economic development through oil and gas exploration off the South African coast, is directly threatening KwaZulu-Natal’s coast through a potential 3.5km-deep oil well.

Now environmental activists want the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (Pasa), to which oil giant ExxonMobil has applied for exploration rights, to force the company to go back to the drawing board after allegedly negotiating in bad faith.

They also want Exxon’s plan to conduct seismic tests in the Indian Ocean in the highly volatile Agulhas Current to be reconsidered – because they believe this will threaten marine life from Richards Bay to the Eastern Cape.

Last month President Jacob Zuma announced the launch of Phakisa, based on a Malaysian model for fast-tracking economic development. Phakisa would, in its first phase, focus on the coastal economy.

A key element of this lies in the development of the offshore oil and gas industry, with Zuma emphasising changes to the regulatory framework for exploration.

Desmond D’Sa, chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, which along with Earthlife Africa has called on Pasa to intervene, told City Press the drilling would do the economy more harm than good.

“On Monday we are writing to Pasa to ask them to intervene and force ExxonMobil to go back to the drawing board. We are declaring a dispute regarding serious violations of the terms laid down by Pasa around the public participation process. We also believe that consulting communities in Durban alone, and not along the entire coastline that will be affected, is flawed,’’ D’Sa said.

D’Sa said he also believed the recent beaching of a young whale on the South Coast was a “direct result’’ of seismic testing, and that ocean life was already under threat.

“Seismic testing is being challenged by scientists around the world because of its impact on ocean life. There is an understanding around the world that oil exploration is damaging to the environment. We believe there will be accidents and spills and that these will damage our coastal economy – which so many people depend on for survival. It will also destroy our tourism industry, which helps drive our economy,’’ he said.

Pasa’s head of regulation Tebogo Motloung told City Press the agency was awaiting a report from ExxonMobil on what it had done to consult the organisations who opposed the company’s exploration.

“We are not sure where the process is at present. We directed [ExxonMobil] to meet the objectors and to provide us with detail on what they have done as far as consultation is concerned,’’ he said.

Facilitator Karthy Govender said a meeting last week between ExxonMobil and the environmental groups had not resolved objections over the public participation process but had been “reasonably constructive”.

ExxonMobil’s Zakithi Zama said the meeting, a follow up from an earlier one that deadlocked, allowed for some engagement with the communities, for which the company was “grateful’’.

She said a report to Pasa had been prepared and would be submitted along with minutes of both meetings.

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