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The Leopard and the Drowning Man

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)

There is, of course, no leopard in this great painting. Instead, looking carefully, you will find the bare white legs of someone floundering upside down, moments before drowning out to sea, while life goes on uninterrupted in the rest of the painting. We will return to this theme of bodies in distress, inversion and compromised subjectivity dissociated from the natural.

Enter the drowning man – the legend has Icarus being given a pair of wings made of feather and wax by his father, as a means of escaping the island on which both of them are trapped. Icarus has been warned by his father both not to fly too close to the sea for fear of his wings becoming too damp to fly, nor to fly too close to the sun for fear of the wax melting. The splash and the legs are medieval painter Breughel’s marvelous depiction of how the story tragically ends.

In 2020 we saw the oil industry upended by massive reduction in demand and an inability to store what was produced, spilling the barrel price of oil out to below zero. Many players have stared bankrupcy in the face. Key global oil fields had started to plateau with 81 % of production in decline[i], with estimates of only 55 years of oil left[ii].Investment has shifted to longer-term offshore drilling, with southern Africa coming into sharp focus.

Enter the leopard – another significant gas condensate find, announced recently by Total, at the Luiperd prospect adjacent to Brulpadda, 175kms offshore of Mossel Bay, South Africa. The leopard is said to ‘de-risk’ similar prospects in offshore Block 11B/12B and the future of Mossgas, due for mothballing next year[iii]. Total, in joint venture with Africa Energy, is looking for the fastest route to commercialise the gas, which involves natural gas infrastructural development, Mossgas and converting diesel-run Gourikwa into a large, LNG-fired power station.

The South African government is pushing gas-fired electricity as a panacea to economic recovery, with sanitised concepts like ‘low carbon’ and talk of an“efficient, cost-effective and clean energy source for transportation, power generation and industrial use”. Behind the Covid build-back narrative is a massive national LNG strategy with connections to Mozambique and Russia[iv]. But who is counting what costs, and to whom?

Whether gas can achieve substantial climate benefits in the transition from coal-based electricity is highly contentious[v]. A major omission in the promotional narrative is always the assessment of the energy return against the energy invested (EROI) since the liquid natural gas (LNG) production process consumes a considerable amount of energy. To pull it out the ocean depths and to cool gas enough to convert it into liquid takes energy. Also the unabated use of natural gas is incompatible with achieving the climate-neutrality objective by 2050. Its use will have to be reduced by over 70 % of current use in 2020. Studies show further development of gas infrastructure is incompatible with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) target of keeping global increases in temperature below 2°C. This all begs the question of the employment outlook, a just transition, economics and life uninterrupted for the South African context.  South Africa has already warmed at around twice the rate of global warming[vi].

The Icarus myth is a parable about risk and how it should always be evaluated for probability and impact. Oceans Not Oil and all our affiliates have been vocal in raising deep concerns about the lack of environmental and socioeconomic due diligence in the Phakisa rush for gas. The list of omissions is long – starting with no Strategic Environmental Assessment being conducted for the offshore oil and gas sector; and ending with ultra deep exploration in the fast-flowing, life-giving Agulhas current and its heavy impacts on biodiversity. Government plans to develop South Africa’s first LNG import terminal at the port of Ngqura (adjacent to the Coega Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and the future gas-to-power plant) which holds the risk of difficult sea conditions and traffic congestion. The break-even point of combined-cycle  infrastructural development will sit well past 2030 and profits will only be seen in the decades after 2050. The newly created National Petroleum Company, under the supervision of Mantashe, blended from iGas, Petrosa, Central Energy Fund (CEF) and the Strategic Fuel Fund into one entity during lockdown,will play a central role and stand to benefit. So where will incentives for closure and transition from gas to renewables be derived, and what is the logic of development of gas as a transition energy if it is bound to be locked in past 2070?

Image: Africa Energy Corp

[i]Patterson, R.(2019, November 9).Has Global Oil Production Really Peaked?. Oilprice.

[ii]Cobb, K. (2020, Feb 10). Peak Shale Could Spark An Offshore Drilling Boom. Oilprice.

[iii]According to Stephen Larkin, CEO of Africa New Energies. In a Capetalk interview. See

[iv]Fakir, S. (2020, September 18). Gwede Mantashe’s gas plan, the northern jihadists and Russia – the emerging power play in Mozambique. Daily Maverick

[v]Myhrvold, N. P., & Caldeira, K. (2012). Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity. Environmental Research Letters, 7(1), 014019.

[vi]Engelbrecht F.A., Adegoke J., Bopape M-J, Naidoo, M., Garland R., Thatcher M., McGregor J., Katzfey J., Werner M., Ichoku C. & Gatebe C. (2015). Projections of rapidly rising surface temperatures over Africa under low mitigation. Environmental Research Letters10(8),

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