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Creecy’s greasy Oil + Gas Sector Plan for the Ocean Commons

The Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, Barbara Creecy, has released the draft Marine offshore Oil and Gas Sector Plan. It has enormous ramifications, since it takes offshore oil and gas Operation Phakisa, which is just a government program and intends turning it into law, through the finalisation of the Marine Spatial Planning Act (MSPA). Public comment remains open until the 9th of May[1] and it is critical that there is mass political engagement with this far reaching proposal. 

Creecy’s Marine Oil and Gas Sector plan gives “primary use” in South African seas to oil and gas seismic surveys, exploration and development. The plan has a map showing production and prospecting zoning of our ocean, except prospecting zones weren’t shown in this public interest document “due to sensitivity”. Creecy invisibilised the real map of prospecting dominance over our seas, one which is easily available on the Petroleum Agency South Africa’s (PASA) website. PASA’s map reveals the potential power relations anticipated for our ocean commons, carving up 95% of it for prospecting blocks with currently twenty active exploration and seven production rights. This means it dwarfs nine other sectors: marine biodiversity, tourism, transport, cultural heritage, defence, science and innovation, aquaculture, and wild fisheries.

Once this Marine offshore Oil and Gas Sector Plan comes into force, the zoning scheme will be binding to all sectors in line with the regulations that apply for its zone. For how long, is not clarified, which flags possible carbon lock-in in the coming decades. The minister acknowledges that Operation Phakisa is running behind schedule, but consequences to climate change commitments remain unexplained. Operation Phakisa will never reach its target of 30 wells by 2030. Only two exploration wells and one pilot well have been drilled since the South Coast Basin development in 2014. Exploration wells take between four to ten years to complete, with high expenditure for oil companies, but no profits. Extraction takes anything from twenty to fifty years while costs are recovered and profits generated. So while South Africa remains coal dependent and Mantashe protracts renewable energy development, offshore oil and methane is bound to be locked in past 2070 and with it the warming, acidifying, deoxygenating ocean commons.

Creecy promises to create “an enabling environment” for offshore oil and methane development. Contentious regulatory due diligence under oil and methane Operation Phakisa is why the minister has already faced three widely publicised community-brought court cases since 2021. These communities hail from KwaZulu Natal (ENI/ Sasol), The Wild Coast ( Shell/ Impact Oil & Gas) and the West Coast (Searcher Seismic & Searcher Geodata), and the supportive citizen-led Oceans Not Oil beach protests pretty much filled in the rest of the coastline. The minister is also suggesting blanketing the entire national coastal methane pipeline scheme under one Environmental Impact Assessment, despite it flaring methane every 187 kms as it traverses many sensitive areas and impacts communities. It seems the minister is slow to learn and refusing to listen.

Creating an oil and gas industry which delivers effective risk management across all its operations is more Creecy blue wash. South Africa has a policy of dumping drill wastes at sea. Dilution does not stop their chemical composition being carcinogenic and radio-active. Also the number of shipwrecks along this coastline stand testament to the great oceanographic forces at play, as does Total’s first drilling attempt which was halted in 2014 due to unplanned-for oceanic turbulence effecting the integrity of their rig. The high-risk profile companies with which Creecy proposes dealing, are an index of oil spills, which they naturalise during ‘typical’ operations. There’s an empirical relationship between the depth of drilling operations and the frequency of accidents during drilling operations. Some proposed wells are nearly twice as deep as Total’s.  

Strict spatial environmental protection like gazetting of new Marine Protected Areas could impede the oil sector’s primary use, so Creecy suggests that area placement agreement should be sought, not with her department mandated to manage, protect and conserve the marine environment and natural resources, but with PASA and the licence holder to ensure no impediment to operations. So, there’s more shine on the blue wash. 

Considering the treacherous sailing conditions around South Africa and that it lies in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, possibly Creecy is imagining an overarching marine field-based enforcement body, a ‘blue scorpions’, with full capabilities, necessary for detection and identification of oil polluters, and enforcement and compliance of all marine related activities, similar to the coast guards of USA or Sweden? This Coast Guard / marine field-based enforcement body could have sufficient capacity and resources for international cooperation. Having this Coast Guard would convey a sense of the value the South African Government places on the marine environment. Alas I started my own blue dreaming. The reality is Centre for Sea Watch within SAMSA exists, but they are severely under-resourced and certainly unknown by many local authorities. 

Creecy undertakes to “maximize the recovery of offshore hydrocarbon reserves sustainably for the benefit of ordinary South Africans”. Somehow, for Creecy the oil and gas sector will share “skills and know how” plus redundant infrastructure with developing marine renewable energy production, and then the emerging carbon capture and storage sector will mop up with “additional positive interaction”. South African have grown frustrated with the pseudo-protectionism of energy security and socio-economic development.

To conflate the exploitation of fossil fuels with sustainable, economic development facilitates marginalisation of the climate crisis, disrespects millions of South Africans who view the sea as sacred and is the crudest of nationalisms. Her strategic objective to escalate oil and gas production, with the assumption that South Africa can burn all of our proven reserves, along with any additional reserves discovered, falls foul of the best available science Creecy states found the Marine offshore Oil and Gas Sector Plan. 

The science is clear that new fossil fuel development, including methane poses a threat to South Africa’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) climate goals. Ending methane, coal and oil development is key to meeting these goals. Operation Phakisa’s Oil and Gas Stream is not sustainable, is significantly harmful to marine and land biowebs, comes with extreme climate and environmental risks, risks to fisheries and tourism and makes a mockery of the sound environmental management function provided for in Section 24 of the Bill of Rights, our commitment to the Paris Accord and Creecy’s departmental mandate. 

[1] Anyone wishing for details of the plan and how to make comments can see:

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