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A Day in one of the Strongest Currents in the World

Frustration levels were running high – no chairs; a packed, hot room; mere post-its for sticking comments on six offshore oil wells proposed in one of the strongest currents in the world to ‘information posters’ in no other language than English- and a walk out was being mooted at the ENI Sasol public meeting for their EIA on exploratory wells off the KZN coast for 2019. I had to get my word in.

I had planned a three-pager questioning the EIA’s ‘Need and Desirability of the Project’. The higher order considerations of the EIA as to future effects to greenhouse gas emissions and acceleration of global climate impact was neatly sidestepped with radical under-reporting, tantamount to mockery, claiming that there will only be emissions generated by the project vessels and a helicopter. So when they take this oil and gas out of our seabed with their ginormous, deafening machines are they just going to just look at it?

“But”, said one of the mingling ENI representatives, with an exaggerated gesture towards one poster at the back corner, “ we have a whole alternative energy plan for the business”. Of course it begs the question why they aren’t using their business redundancy plan to better effect by up-skilling locals now, potentially creating the economic development that the oil and gas sector is certainly not going to deliver. “Surely investing in renewables rather than making hay, at the expense of present and future generations of flora and fauna alike, would prevent worrying about stranding your assets in our beautiful deep blue sea, and help you sleep at night?” I proposed.

My three-pager had many questions about the operational wastes or drill cuttings they intend dumping overboard. The EIA claims ”Potential for short-term localised impacts on seafloor and water column biology due to chemicals and sediments in the water column and settling on the seafloor”. But I’d easily found accessible research that shows that chronic intermittent exposure of species (such as corals, shrimp, scallop, and larval stages of many species) to diluted concentrations of operational drilling wastes (characterized by tests as practically non-toxic) can affect growth, reproductive success and survival of these species. ERM, the environmental consultants on the job, reckon there’ll only be a 5 cm smothering layer of drill cutting sediment of about 7 km2 per well, but their calculations were based on 1 month of drilling. The average drill time is set at 54 days. This is an understatement of 44%. Their calculation dependant on a month is a prevarication at worst and completely unsubstantiated at best.

Oh, and the effects of smothering are “Fully Reversible“.  Given that smothering leads to mortality of deep water corals and that they are extremely slow growing organisms (hundreds of years old in many cases) ERM needs to support the claim that the effect of coral death is fully reversible on any ecologically relevant timescale.[i]

But then again no-one’s sure whether deep water corals exist in block ER 236, nor is enough known about coelacanth life cycles and where they spend their time during those life stages (between the juvenile stage and the adult stage). So ERM saying coelacanth presence in the canyons is ‘unlikely’ is again supposition, like so much else in the EIA report seems to be.

When a woman in a NO TO OIL AND GAS SOUTH AFRICA T-shirt nudged me and mouthed over the escalating disruption, “Speak”, I realized it was time. I raised my voice and made the point that the Scoping Report was not completed in the designated time and should have been repeated, as is required by section 21 of the EIA Regulations (GNR982 of 4 December 2014, as amended).  The regulation allows an existing scoping report to be used in certain circumstances.  One of these is that a scoping report need not be undertaken again if the findings of the initial scoping report are still valid and the environmental context has not changed.

This is glaringly not the case because this EIA report acknowledges that the area of operation is ‘largely unknown’ so proving that context has not been properly established and nor has it been established whether there have been changes within it.

I objected and demanded the process revert back to the scoping phase. I asked for seconders. A sea of hands went up.

The grand finale was Dr David Pearton stepping forward through the shouting and delivering a scathing review on ERM’s Oil Spill Report. He spoke of the cherry picking of data to minimise what the information the public saw, the contradictions in the report and the report claiming that the spill would move east was “just plain embarrassing” science. He also believed quantities of estimated spill had been understated. He faulted the report on its partiality, lack of integrity and questionable ethics …. The room erupted.

Everything else could be said in the written comments submissions. The meeting collapsed. People filed out.

I’ve been asked whether anything had been achieved by the meeting being disrupted.  For me it was obvious that for the oil companies and the environmental consultants, the public participation process is simply rubber stamping. These applications, scoping reports and EIAs are being rushed with the interest of affected parties being deemed as ‘negligible’, ‘minor’ or simply being an obstruction to economic development.

It must not be forgotten that we are all affected parties where carbon emissions and risks to the health of our seas are involved. It is very important that these meetings swell in number and become louder. Government departments are afraid of social opposition. (Last week’s Xolobeni incident is a clear indication of this.) There is now no longer time for despair about powerlessness or hope for a better future world. Despair plays into exploitation by big oil. Hope has no legs. It is now time for action, private and collective action. It is up to us, personally and collectively, to shape our immediate future and that of our children. Government impunity has touched the wrong nerve – we South Africans love our sea and its heritage and will continue fighting for its integrity and survival.

We urge you to contribute your comment at You have until October 25 to comment on the report. All comments received will be included in the Final EIA Report.

[i]From: Prouty NG, Fisher CR, Demopoulos AWJ, Druffel ERM. 2016. Growth rates and ages of deep-sea corals impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Deep Sea Res. Part II Top. Stud. Oceanogr.

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