ExxonMobil Oil Exploration off KZN's Coast: A Toxic Timebomb

2014-08-03 16:05

So Exxon Mobil has got the approval from government to explore for oil off the KZN coastline. This announcement has been the result of two years of brokerage between the multinational, the South African government and other stakeholders. Despite concerted efforts by civil society and the surrounding communities of South Durban, the power of the multi-national has prevailed yet again. It's ironic that such an announcement is declared across news channels just only week after President Jacob Zuma held a summit on marine exploration in South Africa.

Some observers may think of it as a coincidence but I certainly do not. Another suspicious move by our beloved President is the re-opening of the Nkandla Inquiry Commission just days after the appointment of his daughter Thuthukile as chief of Staff in the Telecommunications and Postal Services Department but that's probably for another piece altogether.

ExxonMobil is the second largest listed trading company in the world with annual profits in the tens of billions. Their operations are listed in some of the most wartorn regions and countries on the planet. Its current size is the result from the largest merger in history, that between Exxon and Mobil in 1999. Ironically, both companies are the result of a 1911 U.S Federally ordered dispersal of' 'Standard Oil' (owned by the now mythical John. D. Rockefeller). The Federal order was the result of the government of the time, realizing the power a single company could wield.

Of course a century later, governments have found it more profitable in working closely with corporations of international reach and scope. There are home governments and there are host governments when referring to multinationals. It doesn't take much thinking to discern which of the two benefit more from the operations of Exxon (Texas being its headquarters).

I'm sure many reading this may think about the immediate effects on petrol prices, should this exploration lead discoveries of any deposits (God knows we need it). Other benefits include economic generation in the form of jobs, national GDP, international trade and perhaps more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by other companies. The future some may say, looks great when considering all these possibilities. Many South African's may take news of Exxon Mobil's acquisition of exploration rights as a shocking recent development. Unfortunately, it seems the multinational has been here for sometime, both through its subsidiary Exxon-Mobil-South-Africa (EMSA) and through its merger with Engen, almost ten years to the day.

In a review by the Competition Tribunal on the 24 of March 2004, no disadvantage was found in the merger, as it was subsequently concluded that no further inquiry or investigation be conducted. This came after the tribunal's emphasis on the fairness of the petro-chemical market in the country. The other main companies operating in our shores are BP, Shell, Total, and Sasol.

In a market filled with only six providers (two being British, one French, one local and.......well, Engen being gobbled up by a multinational already), I wouldn't be left to think of competition as fair, or even to regard it as competition at all. The Competition Tribunal's 2004 observation that certain companies' manufacturing and provision of lubricants and other related petroleum products to competitors hints to me that competition is not highest priority of these foreign owned entities. Instead, collusion and collective domination sit at the top of their agenda, the interests of people or the countries in which they operate register only for the sake of maintaining a reputable public image.

The potential damage to marine ecosystems and wildlife is well known and reactions by environmentalists (both at home and abroad) have been predictably fiery. The company's well documented history of slowed reactions to its spillages should register as a beacon to residents all along the East coast of South Africa. This is since the local rights holder IMPACT Oil (how ironic for a name) has also given rights to Exxon for exploring the Transkei region. The implications for communities in close proximity to the coastline are immense. This is both from a social and economic standpoint. I just think of the local 'Sardine Runs' that will inevitably be impacted by oil drilling and all the people who rely on them, some as a cultural past-time and some purely as a means of survival.

The interests of elites (political and economic) may also be a factor, in fact for many they may be the deciding factor. Other hefty criticisms of EM include its preference for operating in countries occupied by dictators and corrupt governments. The track record of our government since 94' with arms deal procurements, compromised air force bases for the sake of certain wealthy elites and countless other misdeeds, leaves South Africa ripe for the picking. Nigerian ex-pats in South Africa could well be reliving the beginnings of a familiar nightmare, should oil be found off the KZN coast, all while South Africans enter a new void of despair far more miserable than the predicament we find ourselves in.

Choices regarding energy policy (in fact policies in general) in the country have been of a schizophrenic nature, almost to a laughable extent. We have been signatories of the environmental policies rolled out by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) with Jay-Z even co-chairing the High Panel on Global Sustainability. All this while we have one of the most reliant economies on fossilized fuels anywhere in the world, with a carbon footprint on par with many of the industrialized giants.

The headline of a section in EM's 2014 publication on Africa only sums up the company's modus operandi

"Exploration and Production - Deeply Rooted in Dedication"

In a cynical way thats exactly right - Exxon Mobil will be dedicated in staying rooted to the bottom of our seabed while focusing on maximizing profits and keeping costs down.

The only question left is, how long will it be until collective society stands up and forces our government to look for alternative and long lasting energy solutions?

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