Seismic surveys: Scientists call for tighter laws, greater oversight

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A seismic survey is to be conducted off the West and South-West Coast of South Africa.
A seismic survey is to be conducted off the West and South-West Coast of South Africa.
Mike Copeland
  • A group of scientists are calling for government to improve legislation geared at protecting the marine environment in light of exploration activities such as seismic surveys.
  • Scientists recommend marine experts conduct Environmental Impact Assessment reports for exploration in the marine environment.
  • Furthermore, they say, decisions regarding the marine environment should not be made by a single government department - a holistic approach is needed for marine oversight.

Seismic surveys effectively create noise pollution and pose a real threat to marine life, according to a group of scientists who want government to beef up efforts to protect the marine environment.

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), which is part of the Academy of Science of South Africa, this week issued an advisory on deep sea seismic surveys conducted for the exploration of oil and gas. SAGE seeks to provide independent, multi-disciplinary science advice to relevant stakeholders on emergency issues concerning areas like the environment and health.

Late last year, the Makhanda High Court granted an interim interdict to block oil and gas company Shell from proceeding with a seismic survey off the Wild Coast, pending a legal challenge on its environmental authorisation.

Shell's Environmental Management Programme (EMPr), which indicates how it plans to manage potential impacts on the environment as a result of the survey, was in 2014 approved in terms of the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act. This EMPr was audited in 2020 and no objections were received. According to Shell and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), this means the permit is still valid.

But applicants - namely the wild cost communities - want Shell to have environmental authorisation under the National Environmental Management Act - over which the Department of Forestry Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) would have more of a say.

The environmental authorisation process is a sticking point for SAGE. They reckon that environmental management plans should not be considered a "valid" substitute for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.

Furthermore, EIA reports specifically for marine environments need to be drafted by experts with marine science or environmental training and experience. "Individuals with land-based mining and generalised environmental impact experience should never be considered proxies for legitimate marine experts," the advisory from SAGE read.

The scientists recommend that government set up a task team to improve the current legislation. "More specifically, the authority of DMRE to exclusively issue exploration permits without the concurrence of the DFFE should be revoked," the advisory read. The scientists want a more holistic approach to marine oversight. They called for more cooperation between departments, particularly the DMRE and the DFFE as well as their affiliated entities.

"Decisions that concern the marine environment cannot and should not be made by a single government department as the complex and integrated nature of marine systems demand more integrative decision-making processes amongst all stakeholders."
Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies

The scientists put forward that seismic surveys pose a real threat to marine life. Particularly the use of airguns to blast sound waves in the water constitutes noise pollution. They also refer to research papers which indicate seismic surveys have altered the behaviour of whales, dolphins and penguins, and destroy larval krill on which humpback whales feed. They note no formal research has been conducted in South Africa about the impact of seismic surveys on the marine environment. But the lack of this specific evidence should in turn warrant a more precautionary approach when it comes to protecting the environment.

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, in a parliamentary reply on Shell's seismic survey, said that potential impacts had "very low significance".

While the Amazon Warrior, the vessel that would be used to conduct Shell's seismic survey left South African waters earlier this month, there is another survey planned off the West coast of the country. It will be conducted by Searcher Seismic, an Australian-based geoscience data supplier. The survey can take as long as 180 days between January and May and covers an area of over 290 000 Km2 between the Namibian border and Cape Aghulas. The reconnaissance permit to conduct the survey was granted in May last year by the Petroleum Agency SA (PASA).

Earlier this week Fin24 reported that civil society organisation We Are South Africans started a petition, which has so far gathered over 8 000 signatures, objecting to the survey. The organisation believes the survey will negatively impact marine life along the West Coast and posits that proper public consultation was not followed.

Richard Spoor Attorneys - representing 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 on Thursday. They demand that Searcher Seismic not proceed with the survey pending a legal challenge of its environmental authorisation.

The letter of demand was also addressed to Minister Mantashe, Director-General of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy Advocate Thabo Mokoena, Petroleum Agency SA - which granted Searcher's permit - and Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Barbara Creecy. As at 17:00, Gilbert Martin, founder of We Are South Africans, said no responses had been received from the relevant ministers, Searcher Seismic and PASA.

This is expected to prompt the filing of an urgent application to stop the survey from happening on 15 January 2022.

Citing a recent Makhanda High Court ruling of an interim interdict of Shell's seismic survey off the Wild Coast, the lawyers highlight that it is the right for interested and affected communities to be consulted meaningfully. This includes the opportunity to voice their concerns about the proposed projects and then to have those concerns addressed. It is their belief that no such meaningful consultation took place regarding Searcher Seismic's survey. For this reason their clients want to legally challenge the granting of the permit.

Searcher Seismic has not responded to multiple requests for comment by Fin24.

The letter of demand was also addressed to Minister Mantashe, Director-General of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy Advocate Thabo Mokoena, Petroleum Agency SA - which granted Searcher's permit - and Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Barbara Creecy.

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