Ocean lovers take Shell to court in a bid prevent it from seismic blasting on Wild Coast

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Extinction Rebellion and African Extinction Rebellion and African Climate Alliance NGOs picketed outside the Shells head offices in Bryanston against the companys proposed seismic blastig in search for fuel. Photo: Tebogo Letsie
Extinction Rebellion and African Extinction Rebellion and African Climate Alliance NGOs picketed outside the Shells head offices in Bryanston against the companys proposed seismic blastig in search for fuel. Photo: Tebogo Letsie

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The battle between environmental and human rights organisations and Shell played out at the Grahamstown High Court in Makhanda on Wednesday in a bid to prevent the fossil fuel company from commencing seismic testing along South Africa’s Wild Coast.

This followed an urgent court application to the same court on Tuesday and a myriad of protests as well as online petitions from ocean lovers across the country.

Shell was supposed to commence with seismic blasting on Wednesday but first had to battle four environmental and human rights groups.

Seismic surveys are conducted to determine the potential presence of naturally occurring oil and gas. During the survey, a seismic vessel discharges pressurised air from its airgun arrays to generate sound waves that are directed towards the seabed, explained Shell in its answering affidavit.

The applicants – Border Deep Sea Angling Association, Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club, Natural Justice and Greenpeace – approached the court on Tuesday for an interim interdict against Shell to stop the seismic blasting or survey.

They argued that the ecologically diverse and sensitive marine environment of South Africa’s Wild Coast, particularly situated in the Eastern Cape, would be harmed.

Shell
Shell was supposed to commence with seismic blasting on Wednesday but it first had to battle four environmental and human rights groups. Photo: Tebogo Letsie

The applicants argued that, in their view, the commencement of the seismic exploration activities was unlawful until Shell had applied for, and obtained, the necessary environmental authorisation in terms of the National Environmental Management Act.

In court papers seen by City Press, the company complained that for the past several years it had “been labouring under the impression that it has a valid authorisation and could proceed to arrange the seismic survey”, and it had spent millions of dollars and entered into contracts as a consequence.

In his preliminary answering affidavit, Hloniphizwe Mtolo, chairperson of Shell companies in South Africa, said that the company had been given approximately 24 hours to respond to voluminous founding papers, and so its response was prepared under extreme time frames.

“Despite the decision in question having been taken in April 2014 and the applicant having known about it for at least a few months, or at the latest since October 29 2021 – a full month ago, the applicants waited until the proverbial clock was about to strike midnight before launching this application on the afternoon of November 29, and setting it down for hearing just two days later on December 1,” he said.

It defended its intention to conduct the seismic surveys and said there was no prejudice to marine species. It also accused the applicants of exaggeration.

“When one reads the founding affidavit, one gets the impression that the seismic survey that is to be conducted by Shell is an unprecedented environmental catastrophe, unsupported by expert evidence and with constant sound blasts resulting in certain and irreparable harm to sea life.

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“Indeed, this appears to be a deliberate impression that the applicants are trying to create, both before this court and in the media,” Mtolo said.

He added that the impression was regrettable, misleading and based on incorrect facts and fear-mongering half-truths.

Advocate Adrian Friedman argued on behalf of Shell that, after more than 50 years of worldwide seismic surveys and more than 15 years of extensive peer-reviewed scientific research, there remained no evidence that sound from properly mitigated seismic surveys has had any significant impact on any marine populations.

He said seismic surveys were conducted worldwide and provided the only means of detailed imaging of the subsurface.

He said, to date, there was no research globally showing that serious injury, deaths or stranding of marine mammals has occurred from exposure to sound from seismic surveys when the appropriate mitigation measures are implemented.

The applicants argued that the decision-making process amounted to unjust administrative action since interested and affected parties were not informed of the granting of the exploration right or allowed to appeal it.

The public was also not notified of the two applications to renew the exploration right.

Shell
Extinction Rebellion and African Climate Alliance NGOs picketed outside the Shells head offices in Bryanston against the companys proposed seismic blastig in search for fuel. Photo: Tebogo Letsie

The applicants argued that, during the seismic survey, the vessel would, for five months, fire air guns every 10 seconds through 6 011km² of ocean surface, sending extremely loud shock wave emissions that penetrate through 3km of water and 40km into the Earth’s crust below the seabed.

The applicants also argued that marine life on the sensitive Wild Coast would be disturbed and destroyed, with many sea creatures like whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, sharks and even crabs and tiny shellfish being negatively impacted by the blasts in the coming months.

Lawyers for the applicants submitted that the Wild Coast’s pristine beaches and biodiversity attracted millions of tourists every year and that seismic surveys had been linked to decreased sightings of marine life and decreased catch rates for commercial fishing.

Willie Duminy SC argued for the applicants that the approved environmental management programme for the seismic surveys made it clear the survey should not be undertaken during December, unless that could not be avoided, and that Shell had not established that undertaking it now was unavoidable.

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Shell argued that if an interim interdict were granted stopping Shell from starting the surveys in December, it would not be able to complete the surveys within the “window” of suitable time within 2022.

It also argued that it may then have to walk away from the project, which would be detrimental to company and to the country.

Acting Judge Avinash Govindjee reserved judgment for 9am on Friday.


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Lubabalo Ngcukana 

Journalist

+27 11 713 9001
lubabalo.ngcukana@citypress.co.za
www.citypress.co.za
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
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