Oceans Not Oil would like to correct some misleading combinations of facts in the Independent On Saturday’s article, Drilling fears for marine life (14 Sept 2019).
There are distinct stages in offshore oil and gas development : Reconnaissance ( involving seismic airguns towed behind survey vessels) which is the search for oil and gas reserves below the seabed. After this comes Exploration, when wells are drilled into the seabed to confirm whether geological formations identified during the reconnaissance stage contain oil and/or gas. Marine Vertical Seismic Profiling is used to predict the depth of the oil/gas reservoirs during drilling of the boreholes. It also uses airguns to generate powerful pressure waves that penetrate the ocean bed. Both processes have airguns capable of inducing lethal and sublethal injury[i],[ii], hearing loss [iii],[iv](temporary or permanent), masking of communication, physiological stress[v], [vi], [vii], [viii], acoustic resonance in air cavities, organ rupture, behavioural responses, avoidance of critical habitat areas, disruption in schooling and migration [ix], disruption of homing or orientation[x]; decreased feeding efficiency[xi]; decompression sickness, and mass strandings[xii], [xiii]for marine animals.
ENI and Sasol have completed the reconnaissance phase of this application, during which the KZN and eastern seaboard experienced the highest ever recorded numbers of stranded marine mammals. ENI and Sasol have now been granted an Environmental Authorisation to explore/drill on the continental shelf off the KZN coastline. They will be invading the soundscape of deep diving and acoustically sensitive species like Pilot whales and Beaked whales, resident in the region, because the continental shelf-break edge is an important foraging area for these species. The noise and pressure waves from Vertical Seismic Profiling was scoped out of the DEIAR (Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Report). Science shows this needs mitigation especially during species migration periods.
Sasol intends dumping its drilling waste at sea. These muds can be contaminated with toxic substances like benzene, zinc, arsenic, radioactive materials, heavy metals and other contaminants used to lubricate drill bits and maintain pressure. Pending the level of toxicity, these muds are released back into the marine environment, impacting the seafloor, ocean floor community and water column biology. Hundreds of square meters of drill cuttings can accumulate meters deep on the seabed during the drilling operation, smothering seafloor life and leading to mortality of deep water corals that are extremely slow growing organisms (hundreds of years old in many cases).
The approving authority for oil and gas environmental authorization applications sits with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) instead of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) as prescribed by the Constitution. Environmental authorities are more appropriately placed to consider, issue and ensure compliance with environmental authorisations for mining activities than the DMRE (CER et al. 2013). This requires review to ensure that the relevant government department’s constitutionally prescribed mandates are not undermined in the interests of expedience or profit by DMRE’s obligations to promote mining, at the cost of sound environmental management.
The alternative to drilling stands as the development and use of renewable energy. It is our view that this option has not been granted enough consideration because the body that regulates exploration and production activities (Petroleum Agency South Africa PASA ) is mandated to promote oil and gas.
The moratorium on whaling was in 1979 and the increase in the Humpback whale population is certainly a conservation success story, but it also means that there are more whales around and more whales are washing ashore every year.
Additional stranded animals along the KZN coastline, potentially caused by the exploration drilling will place unnecessary pressure on Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife who are the mandated authority to coordinate response efforts for marine stranded animals within KZN. The oil companies have insurance and funding for rehabilitation of oiled wildlife if an accident or spill occurs but this funding will be made available after the event. Ezemvelo do not currently have the necessary equipment to deal with additional marine animals washing ashore.