Petroleum Agency defends Shell's 'safe' seismic survey off the Eastern Cape coast

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Protestors at the Waterfront waiting the arrival of the ship Amazon Warrior. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)
Protestors at the Waterfront waiting the arrival of the ship Amazon Warrior. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)
  • The Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) which promotes oil and gas exploration on behalf of government has defended a planned seismic survey off the Eastern Cape coast.
  • While environmental activists and concerned citizens have warned of the harmful effects on marine animals, PASA says there is no global research to confirm this.
  • PASA says that specialists onboard for the survey will check the area for signs of marine life before airguns blast soundwaves into the water.

While environmental activists and concerned citizens have warned of the harmful effects a planned seismic survey by Shell will have on marine life, the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA) has said there is no global research to confirm this.

PASA has published a fact sheet on seismic surveys, this as oil and gas company Shell is set to conduct a survey over the next four to five months off the Eastern Cape coast, from 1 December.

The survey will cover an area of about 6 000km2, between Port St Johns and Morgans Bay and will be 20km offshore. Seismic survey involves having airguns send pulses of sound into water, as these sound waves hit the seafloor, it is reflected back and special equipment is used to read the information to map out the seafloor and detect where there are oil or gas reserves.

One of issues raised is that marine animals use sound to navigate, find food, avoid predators and even find mates.

Earlier this month, the South African Association for Marine Biological Research's Dr Judy Mann authored an article which indicates internationally seismic surveys have had negative impacts on marine life - ranging from plankton to whales. In her documentary, Becoming Visible, Janet Solomon documents that seismic surveys have led to temporary hearing loss in some animals, as well as the damaging of tissue and stress.

Extinction Rebellion Cape Town has also said that seismic surveys could "kill or injure" marine animals close by.

Some members of the pubic have joined placard protests and over 300 000 have signed a petition to block the survey from taking place.

There have also been calls to boycott Shell service stations over the holiday period and recently, a fuel company Express Petroleum has said it will de-brand from Shell and is now procuring product from alternative sources as it does not support nor is it involved in the seismic survey.

PASA, which promotes exploration for onshore and offshore oil and gas resources on behalf of government, however has said that the seismic surveys have been conducted over 50 years for different reasons - scientific research, military or academic - and that it is not an "explosion" into the ocean but rather compressed air that is released and which generates sound output.

"To date, there is no research globally showing that serious injury, death or stranding of marine animals has occurred from exposure to sound from seismic surveys when the appropriate mitigation measures … are implemented," PASA said in a statement.

PASA reiterated previous statements from Shell and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, that the survey would be conducted outside a "key migration" period for whales.

"During this season, only the Giant Kingfish was sighted in water not deeper than 50m and are classified as an inshore species; therefore, would not be impacted by this operation," PASA said.

To conduct the survey, an exclusion zone- about 500m around the sound source will be created and if a marine animal enters that zone, the sound source will be suspended. It also reaffirmed Shell's statement that a specialist team will be onboard to detect the area for marine animals.

"'Soft-starts'’ will also be implemented. This means that the sound source will gradually increase over a period of time which allows any animals in the area to steadily move away," the statement read.

There will also be a 60-minute inspection prior to the sound being emitted.

"This ensures that there are no animals in sight before the soft-start procedures are done," Pasa said.

Shell spokesperson Pam Ntaka has previously told Fin24 that the company will still go ahead with the survey.

"I'd like to echo our country chair Hloniphizwe Mtolo's sentiments and assure you that if this survey was not safe, Shell would not proceed with it based on our deep commitment to safety and the environment," said Ntaka.

Shell has repeatedly said it is acting within its legal rights and has met obligations pertaining to the permit to conduct the survey.

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