Geoscience company to oppose West Coast communities in seismic survey court battle

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The seismic survey is to be conducted off the west and southwest coast of South Africa.
The seismic survey is to be conducted off the west and southwest coast of South Africa.
Mike Copeland/Gallo
  • Geoscience data company Searcher intends to oppose an urgent court application to interdict its seismic survey off the West Coast.
  • Searcher's lawyers, however, want timelines to be adjusted, and want at least two weeks to be able to draft their answering affidavit.
  • Civil society organisation We Are South Africans, meanwhile, wants President Cyril Ramaphosa to stop the survey while the matter is aired in court.

Australian Geoscience data company Searcher plans to oppose a legal challenge by West Coast communities seeking to interdict its proposed seismic survey in the area.

Searcher's lawyer, Roy Barendse of firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, filed the notice to oppose at the Western Cape High Court, ahead of the 16:00 deadline on Monday. 

Civil society groups We Are South Africans and The Green Connection, as well as West Coast residents and fisheries (including Steenbergs Cove Small Scale Fisheries Cooperative, the Aukatowa Small Scale Fisheries Cooperative and Coastal links Langebaan), on Friday filed an urgent application at the high court, seeking to interdict the survey off the West Coast, pending a legal challenge of the reconnaissance permit granted to Searcher in May 2021.

Australian-based Searcher Seismic and its UK division Searcher Geodata are listed as respondents in the matter. Other respondents include the vessel BGP Pioneer, which will conduct the survey,  Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy and the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA). 

The applicants believe that Searcher did not consult meaningfully with affected parties.

In a letter seen by Fin24, Barendse on Monday wrote to the applicants' lawyers, Legal Resources Centre and Richard Spoor Inc. Attorneys, requesting more time - at least two weeks - to draft answering affidavits. Currently, Searcher is required to deliver the answering affidavit this week - 27 January.

"It appears that the applicants have been aware of the survey in question since early January 2022. It has taken the applicants considerable time to prepare and launch this application. The applicants are seeking to allow the respondents six calendar days within which to file an answering affidavit. In fairness, the above period is entirely unreasonable," the letter read.

Searcher's lawyers also requested a case management meeting with the judge president on Thursday, 27 January, where a new timetable is to be agreed to.

In response to questions from Fin24 about whether the survey has started, Barendse said that the matter is pending in court, and as such Searcher has no comments. However, Searcher will "consider" issuing a media statement in "due course".

Wilmien Wicomb of the Legal Resources Centre in a written response to Searcher's lawyers explained that the time frames are based on the "urgency" of the matter. "It is not open to your clients to dictate alternative timeframes, particularly where these would frustrate the need for urgent intervention," the letter read.

However, the West Coast communities are open to having the answering affidavit filed at a later date or adjusting to a "slower timetable", provided that Searcher undertakes to desist from "seismic blasting".

"It is Searcher's refusal to give such an undertaking that has forced the West Coast Communities to litigate on an urgent basis. We are instructed to again tender a slower timetable if Searcher provides an undertaking to immediately desist from their seismic blasting activities, pending the finalisation of the interim interdict application."
Wilmien Wicomb - Legal Resources Centre

Wicomb said that Searcher's refusal to desist from the exploration was "unreasonable and imprudent". "In the circumstances, the timelines set out in the notice of motion are reasonable. Without an undertaking, Searcher's request for two calendar weeks to file answering affidavits while blasting is unreasonable," the letter read.

Seismic surveys involve the use of airguns to direct sound pulses into the water - which helps with mapping out the seabed to potentially find oil or gas resources. The applicants have raised concerns of the harmful impact this will have on marine and bird life.

The reconnaissance permit area is approximately 297 087m2 - stretching between the Namibian border and Cape Agulhas. The water depths of the survey span between 100m and 4500m.

The app MarineTraffic showed that the BGP Pioneer, which had been close to St Helena Bay on Friday, had sailed into the deep water, north of Yzerfontein by Monday, 24 January.

Gilbert Martin founder of We Are South Africans said that Searcher is within its rights to proceed with the survey, given that it has a reconnaissance permit. But the applicants believe this reconnaissance permit was unlawfully granted and believe the survey should be halted until the matter is aired out in court.

Martin referred to a similar challenge against Shell's planned seismic survey off the Wild Coast. Shell waited for the court to make a call on whether the survey could go ahead. The Makhanda High Court, however, granted an interim interdict, and the vessel meant to conduct Shell's seismic survey left South African waters earlier this month.

"Shell at least was decent, they waited for the first interdict to come before court before doing the survey," Martin told Fin24. "But it appears these Australian companies just middle-fingered us … and started with the survey anyway."

We Are South Africans in the meantime is demanding that President Cyril Ramaphosa stop the BGP Pioneer by Tuesday 25 January, pending the court outcome. "We are requesting for the law to take its course," said Martin. 

We Are South Africans had previously sent a list of demands to the president, some of which include having Mantashe and Creecy be placed on special leave.

The organisation also wants an oversight committee of "competent" representatives - such as public bodies, civil society and community organisations, scientists, financial experts, community and traditional leaders, and indigenous people - to assess permits granted by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and its agencies.

The civil society organisation also called for all mining, oil and gas exploration rights granted to be suspended and assessed.

Meanwhile, Mantashe told City Press that he is under attack, by a foreign-funded campaign that involves "predominantly white liberal media", research institutions and civil society groups seeking to destabilise the work of the department.

"I'm a minister appointed by the president and I have not been reshuffled. Leave the president out of it because [the campaign] is a foreign-funded programme that is run by institutions here," Mantashe told City Press. He did not specifically name We Are South Africans or any of the civil society groups referred to in his remarks.

Mantashe is a proponent of coal - and has supported the use of carbon capture, utilisation and storage technologies so that the country can continue to use its vast coal resources while responding to climate change commitments.

The minister, who has been described by his critics as a "coal fundamentalist" and a "fossil fuel dinosaur", has also sprung to the defence of Shell's Wild Coast seismic survey, saying that the potential impacts of the exploration is of "low significance."

Mantashe has previously said that indigenous production of oil and gas will support the country's energy security and provide an opportunity for local beneficiation of oil and gas.

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