130 000 people sign petition against Shell's plans to 'blast' SA's ocean floor

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Shell said it has "long experience" in collecting seismic data and the welfare of wildlife is a major factor in the "stringent" controls used.
Shell said it has "long experience" in collecting seismic data and the welfare of wildlife is a major factor in the "stringent" controls used.
Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
  • Shell plans to start a seismic survey off the coast of the Eastern Cape from 1 December to detect oil and gas reserves.
  • Environmental activists and concerned citizens however are petitioning to block the seismic blasts.
  • They are concerned that the blasts will interfere with the way marine mammals navigate, and that marine life will be damaged by oil or gas drilling in the ocean. 

Environmental activists and concerned citizens are petitioning to block multinational company Shell from conducting seismic blasts to detect oil and gas reserves off the east coast of South Africa.

The petition started by Oceans Not Oil has garnered over 132 000 signatures as at Friday, 19 November. Oceans Not Oil is a coalition of individuals and organisations working to end the country's dependence on fossil fuel. It targets prospecting activities off the coast of South Africa, because it impacts marine life.

The petition cites a notice taken from the Daily Dispatch newspaper about the seismic survey, which would be conducted as early as 1 December 2021 by Shearwater GeoServices, a global company that provides seismic services.

The area - more than 20 km off the coast - covers about 6 011km2 between Port St Johns and Morgans Bay. The survey is estimated to take between four to five months.

The seismic survey is expected to take place about
The seismic survey is expected to take place about 20 km offshore - in water depths ranging between 700 m and 3000 m.

According to an article authored by Dr Judy Mann of the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) seismic surveys are used to map the size of offshore oil and gas reserves. An airgun sends pulses of sound in the water until it hits the seafloor, some of the sound waves that are reflected back are then picked up by a receiver and scientists then determine what is under the seafloor.

The immediate concern is that these seismic surveys may interfere with marine life, especially how marine mammals navigate through using sound, according to Alex Lenferna, campaigner at 350 Africa. "You have marine mammals like dolphins and whales that navigate predominantly through sound and that would interfere with their ability to move around and communicate."

Mann explained that marine mammals, fish and invertebrates depend on sound to navigate and find mates, food and even avoid predators. In a documentary on seismic surveys, Becoming Invisible, directed by Oil Not Oil co-founder Janet Solomon documents the harsh impacts on all kinds of sea animals. This includes temporary hearing loss, damage to reproductive organs, tissue and even causing stress.

"Internationally, seismic surveys have been demonstrated to have negative impacts on a range of marine organisms, from smaller creatures which live in sediments or as plankton, to larger animals and marine mammals," Mann said.

A lot of the resistance is also linked to the fact that seismic surveys would ultimately detect oil and gas reserves and lead to drilling of these fossil fuels which will have an environmental impact much worse than the seismic blasts, he said.

Mann explained that there are risks linked to drilling oil off the Wild Coast, which has the "fastest-flowing" and "most powerful" ocean currents globally which will make it harder to contain oil spills. "The power of the current is such that attempts to contain any accidental spillage or normal operational spillage would likely be unsuccessful," Mann said.

Seismic surveys can also impact the catches of fisheries, Mann highlighted.

In response to questions, Shell said it is aware of the petition and respects the right of everyone to express their point of view and to do so safely.

Shell said it has "long experience" in collecting seismic data and the welfare of wildlife is a major factor in the "stringent" controls used. Shell said it strictly follows international guidelines of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. "We take great care to prevent or minimise impacts on fish, marine mammals and other wildlife."

SAAMBR has called for South Africa to pursue renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuels like oil and gas. This is also aligned to climate action commitments to keep global warming to below 1.5°C.

South Africa recently reached an agreement with rich nations US, UK, Germany, France and the EU which have pledged to mobilise R131 billion over three to five years to assist with the transition away from coal. The offer was announced amid the United Nation's Climate Change Conference COP26, where nations committed to phase down coal, among other things.

Regarding its pursuit of oil and gas, amid global efforts for climate change mitigation, Shell said it will continue to partner with government in the country's energy transition. 

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