Scientists warn of seismic blasting harm, as Mantashe on charm offensive in Eastern Cape

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Seismic surveys involve using airguns to send pulses of sound into water to map out the seabed for resources like oil and gas.
Seismic surveys involve using airguns to send pulses of sound into water to map out the seabed for resources like oil and gas.
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  • The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) has hit back at criticisms from the geoscience industry about its stance on seismic surveys.
  • SAGE emphasises that there is "ample" scientific literature to support its view that seismic surveys are harmful to marine environments.
  • Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe meanwhile intends to engage with Eastern Cape traditional leaders to find solutions for the development of the upstream petroleum industry.

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe will over February and March engage with traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape about developing the upstream petroleum industry which has been opposed by Wild Coast communities and other civil society organisations.

The aim of the engagement is to provide "clarity" and to find solutions to the challenges in developing the industry, the department said in an advisory issued on Tuesday.

Mantashe has spoken out against those opposing exploration, dubbing them an "anti-development movement".

"We must appreciate the fact that there's an anti-development movement that is emerging, which is very confident, very emboldened. Every time you explore for mining, or even for oil and gas in the ocean, they take you to court. Their aim is to kill investment through the courts," Mantashe said last week at the North West provincial mining and energy investment conference.

The minister has defended Shell's planned seismic survey, and said that the potential impacts were assessed to have "very low significance"

However, the Makhanda High Court recently granted an interim interdict for Shell's seismic survey, off the Wild Coast. Judge Gerald Bloem said the evidence presented showed "there is a real threat that the marine life would be irreparably harmed by the seismic survey". He also slammed the consultation process with interested and affected parties and labelled it as being "flawed." 

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergency (SAGE), part of the Academy of Science of South Africa, in January issued an advisory on Shell's planned seismic survey. They warned that seismic surveys cause harm to marine life.

The scientists had recommended that no seismic surveys be conducted in South Africa without an Environmental Impact Assessment report and such reports should be drafted by experts specifically in the area of marine science.

The advisory did not go unnoticed by the geoscience industry. In a letter EnerGEO Alliance - an association of the geoscience industry - and the African Energy Chamber had critiqued the advisory by the scientists.

EnerGEO Alliance put forward that there was no scientific evidence to show seismic surveys have "biologically significant negative" impacts on marine life, Fin24 previously reported. EnerGEO Alliance also questioned the credibility of the academic papers on which SAGE based its advisory - which called for reforms to legislation related to the protection of the marine environment. 

The industry suggested that the group of scientists were misinformed about seismic surveys and their impact on marine environments. EnerGEO Alliance further implored SAGE to engage with the industry to get a better understanding of seismic surveys - which have been in use for 100 years.

However, in a letter issued to EnerGEO Alliance and the African Energy Chamber on Tuesday, SAGE said there is "ample scientific literature that supports the position that seismic surveys can be harmful to marine environments." SAGE pointed out that industry relied on the absence of evidence of harm to defend seismic surveys. However, "inadequate" evidence of harm does not mean there is no harm at all.

They advised that because the potential impact of seismic surveys on marine life is "poorly understood", precautionary approaches should be taken to protect the marine environment when conducting seismic surveys.

SAGE encouraged further data collection:

Further, we urge industry and the scientific community to purposefully and proactively collect more data on the country's biodiversity and biotic responses to seismic disturbances, so that we can better characterise potential impacts consequent upon seismic surveys, going forward.

It defended the integrity of the sources it used for its advisory.

"If your organisations are confident in your critique, we trust you will follow scientific convention and publish your position in respectable journals, where it can be subject to robust peer review, as was the case with the published sources you critique," the letter read.

There is currently a separate legal opposition by West Coast communities to interdict a different seismic survey being conducted by Australian geoscience data company Searcher. Applicants want to challenge the lawfulness of a reconnaisance permit granted to Searcher in May 2021. Searcher will oppose the application. 

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