Another seismic survey is heading to SA waters, this time from Australia

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The seismic survey is to be conducted off the West and South-West Coast of South Africa.
The seismic survey is to be conducted off the West and South-West Coast of South Africa.
Mike Copeland
  • An Australian company received approval to conduct a seismic survey off the West Coast of South Africa.
  • According to a civic organisation, this could have an environmental impact.
  • This comes shortly after a court ordered Shell to suspend its seismic survey off the Wild Coast.

Just as the Amazon Warrior, a vessel that was to conduct a seismic survey off the Wild Coast on behalf of Shell, left South Africa, attention is now focused on another planned survey, this time off the West Coast.

In December, the Makhanda High Court granted an interim interdict to halt Shell’s seismic survey - pending a court ruling on whether the company requires fresh environmental authorisation, Fin24 previously reported. Judge Gerald Bloem said that evidence presented showed there is a "real threat that the marine life would be irreparably harmed by the seismic survey." He also took aim at the public consultation process followed in the granting of the exploration right, describing it as "flawed," "unlawful and invalid."

Meanwhile, an Australian geoscience data supplier Searcher Seismic was awarded a reconnaissance permit by the Petroleum Agency SA (PASA) in May last year. A reconnaissance permit allows the holder to undertake geological, geophysical or photogeological surveys and is valid for a year, according to PASA's website.

PASA did not elaborate why the project is being undertaken by Searcher - but indicated that it is a "multi-client speculative" 2D and 3D seismic survey programme, that will occur over a number of petroleum licence blocks on the West, and South-West Coasts (or between the Namibian border and Cape Agulhas). The survey could last as long as 180 days - between January and May.

The area to be covered by the permit is approximately 297 089 km2, and is 20km off the coast,  according to Searcher's environmental management plan. In terms of water depth it covers a range from approximately 100 m to over 4500 m.

Permit area for the 2D and 3D seismic surveys. (Ch
Permit area for the 2D and 3D seismic surveys. (Chart: SLR Consulting).
Supplied SLR Consulting

Civil society organisation We Are South Africans claim that Searcher will also allegedly use seismic blasting, which involves blasting sound pulses into the water with the aim to map out the presence of oil and gas reserves.

In the Shell case, activists warned of the harmful impacts on marine life such as whales and turtles. We Are South Africans believes the Searcher survey would impact certain species found along the West Coast - such as the African penguin, blue whales, orcas, sea turtles. The organisation also raised concerns of the impact on the tourism industry as well as fishing communities along the West Coast. We Are South Africans also claims that there is no news article that can be found to alert the public on a commenting process related to the survey.

The organisation is also in the process of filing a court application to interdict it. According to We are South Africans, the survey is expected to start on 15 January. The organisation has so far gathered 6 000 signatures as part of a petition against the survey. 

Letter of demand

On Thursday, 13 January, Richard Spoor Attorneys - which represents We Are South Africans, and Legal Resources Centre - which represents a number of West Coast fishing communities - served a letter of demand to Searcher Seismic to not go ahead with the survey pending a legal challenge of its permit. The letter is also addressed to Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, Director-General of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy Advocate Thabo Mokoena, PASA and Minister of Forestry, Fisheries And Environment Barbara Creecy.

The lawyers put forward that Searcher did not properly consult with affected parties as part of the permit application and the environmental authorisation process. They want Searcher to obtain environmental authorisation in terms of National Environmental Management Act.

Searcher has until 18:00 on Friday 14 January to respond. If it plans to go ahead with the survey, an urgent application will be brought before a high court to interdict it.

In response to questions from Fin24, PASA indicated that at the time the reconnaissance permit application was lodged in April 2021, there was no legal requirement for environmental authorisation, in terms of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations.

"Activities requiring the reconnaissance permit were only listed in the amended EIA Regulations gazetted in June 2021 and the amended regulations do not apply retrospectively," said PASA.

Searcher, however, still prepared the environmental management plan which indicated how it intends to manage potential environmental impacts from the survey. PASA was satisfied with the plan.

Searcher has not yet responded to Fin24's request for comment.

According to the environmental management plan, there is a need for exploration activities to detect hydrocarbon resources - which can support the country's energy mix. The proposed project would potentially allow South Africa to make the most of these indigenous resources, as opposed to having to import them.

Earlier this week, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe revealed in a parliamentary reply that his department sees no need to review a decision granting Shell exploration rights on the Wild Coast. He also said most potential impacts had "very low significance".

Mantashe has said that the indigenous production of oil and gas would support the country's energy security, and provide an opportunity for local beneficiation of oil and gas, Fin24 previously reported. He added that the country's renewable energy programme, aligned to the Integrated Resources Plan of 2019, would need to be supported by gas-to-power to ensure the stability of the electricity grid. "It would therefore be an added benefit to the economy if the gas to be used in the gas-to-power programme is indigenous gas."

In a separate written reply to a question about Shell's seismic survey, Mantashe said the project has been in the pipeline since 2013.

"The permission to conduct the seismic survey is part of the exploration right that Shell and Impact Africa Oil hold for the Transkei Algoa in the Wild Coast. As part of the exploration right application, an environment impact assessment was carried out in 2013, culminating in the approval of the environmental management programme in 2014. An independent review of the environmental management programme was carried out in 2020 with the audit report sent to the database of interested and affected parties in May 2020. No objections were received. The environment management programme permits the licensees to undertake exploration activities including the seismic survey."
Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe

Furthermore, Mantashe said the 3D seismic survey is not blasting but rather "compressed air that is released and generates sound output directed to the seabed."

He also said all applicable legislative requirements were followed in granting the exploration right, including the environmental management programme.

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