Seismic tests enrage ecowarriors

2013-04-14 14:00

Eastern Cape authorities admit to testing for oil and gas between the Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay shorelines.

Environmentalists are hopping mad following the admission by authorities this week that preliminary seismic tests had been “quietly” conducted between the Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay shorelines two weeks ago.

The tests follow the granting of a licence to a company prospecting for oil and gas off the Eastern Cape shoreline.

Tests showing possible gas and oil deposits on the sea bed of the entire Eastern Cape coastline have pit economic development against sustainable-environment imperatives.

The discovery of what could be vast gas and oil deposits could forever change the face of the pristine tourism region of the Wild Coast, but also have a huge impact on the Eastern Cape economy and help to reduce South Africa’s reliance on international markets for its energy needs.

Exploration applications are currently being submitted, and the coastline between Port Edward and Jeffreys Bay could become a profitable offshore drilling zone.

But the drilling process will involve blasting on the ocean floor. This worries environmentalists and conservationists, who argue that the huge population of dolphins and whales along this coastline may be destroyed during the blasting process.

The exploration between Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay could be followed by another, including the pristine Wild Coast.

The application to Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa) by Impact Africa aims to extend exploration between Port Alfred and Port Edward.

This area covers more than 45?000km2, with depths ranging from the shoreline to close to 4?000m deep.

This seismic survey was conducted by New African Global Energy between February and March, following permission from the department of energy in December 2011.

Pasa chief executive Nontsikelelo van Averbeke said the results of this survey would not be made public immediately.

The Wildlife and Environment Society of SA (Wessa) agreed with Pasa that the withholding of such information from the public at this stage was normal practice, as it could affect the price of oil and gas, among other things. But Wessa is nevertheless opposed to the drilling, saying aquatic life, including dolphins and whales, will be adversely affected.

It said the blasting would interfere with these species’ navigation, and could also damage their lungs and cause hearing problems.

“Their bodies could also be damaged by the strong noise and vibration,” said Wessa spokesperson Morgan Griffiths.

One conservationist, who declined to be named, said the massive shock waves sent by dynamite shot from air guns during undersea blasting would disturb, or even kill, aquatic life.

Owners of holiday resorts along the coast also said the oil and gas surveys would affect their establishments, and cause huge damage to both the environment and the tourism industry. Another concern is the possibility of oil spills.

Claire Alborough, the spokesperson for Environmental Resources Management, the consultancy that conducted the environmental impact assessment, said if it was agreed to start drilling, based on the survey results, they would enter into the process of public participation and conduct another impact assessment.

Impact Africa declined to comment on the growing controversy surrounding its application.

But it did say that, if given permission to prospect, their exploration would commence next year and it would take about three years to get results.

Claire Kockott, spokesperson for the Wild Coast Jikeleza Association, said: “The problem is always that organisations do not tell the truth and come clean on the negatives. They are only after profits.”

Another row is brewing between environmentalists and developers, coincidentally along the same stretch of Eastern Cape coastline. Government has approved plans to build a nuclear plant at Thyspunt, near Jeffreys Bay.

How drilling is done

During the exercise, more than 50 raw samples will be taken from the ocean floor across this vast area.

The process involves the use of 2-D and 3-D surveys followed by the use of air guns.

The latter are towed by seismic vessels that will shoot dynamite direct on the sea bed, causing high-level, low-frequency sounds and explosions.

It is almost the same as shale gas fracking, where water, spiced with chemicals, is pumped at very high pressure into rock crevices under the sea to break them open and release the gas

trapped inside.

This process is what environmentalists are worried about as it kills aquatic life.

Morgan Griffiths of Wessa says: “Of course, people might argue that the death of sea birds and fish does not matter when it comes to creating jobs and wealth.

“But it is all these incidents and such attitudes that have led to the serious decline in our planet’s ability to sustain us.”

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