Fishing communities of South Africa have rejoiced at the victories taken home from the last couple of court cases. First, at the end of December 2021, Judge Gerald Bloem ruled in favour of the Wild Coast communities. Forcing the oil giant Shell to stop all seismic activities until the final hearing on the 30th of May 2022. And secondly, earlier this month Judge Daniel Thulare ordered Searcher Seismic to halt their operations after the application for an interdict from the West Coast Fishing communities. Both interdicts argued that the consultation processes were inadequate. And that the companies did not obtain environmental authorisation in terms of NEMA, even though the seismic surveys could have a negative impact on the environment.
But, as with many such affairs, there are two sides to the story. On one side we have a country with an incredible natural environment and historical culture. Both of which should be preserved not only for reasons of heritage and environmental conservation but also because of the tourism they attract. And on the other side, we have a country desperate for energy, as well as economic development. So how do we weigh the pros and cons? Can we find a middle ground?
The Carte Blanche Debate
Last week, on the 17th of February, Carte Blanche launched their first installment of Carte Blanche Debates with seismic surveys as the focus. During the debate, speakers try to address the real possible risks and benefits involved in the seismic activity offshore of South Africa. It is clear during the debate that there are many unknowns. But that the main problem is not the seismic activities themselves. But rather the way in which the involved parties are conducting them.
Seismic Survey Impact on the Environment
An important factor is that the communities disputing the seismic surveys are fighting against something much bigger than these two isolated operations. In fact, according to Richard Spoor, about 93% of the South African offshore economic zones are already dedicated to mining. From oil and potash to diamonds and minerals. Our ocean is already under strain from various activities. And we cannot ignore the cumulative impact of the currently developing oceanic economy.
Furthermore, where some have argued that the evidence behind the environmental damage of seismic surveys is speculative. No one can dispute that the final goal of drilling for oil presents many environmental risks. Plus, the dispute of the applicants is not entirely revolved around the scientific evidence suggesting there is a negative impact on the environment. The argument is that the surveys do not have adequate environmental authorisation. Protection acts such as NEMA are set in place to ensure that those wishing to embark on large-scale mining projects first ask the questions “How are we doing it?”, “Under what conditions are we doing it?” and “How are we mitigating the negative impacts of it?”.
Economic Benefits of Seismic Surveys
The possible economic benefits are tricky to measure. There is talk of things like job creation and increased investment value in South Africa. But what are the real possibilities? Even a predicted outcome will vary depending on many external factors, such as the quality of the institutions involved. Chief economist at IQ business, Sifiso Skenjana, adds that for true economic growth there would need to be good systems in place, such as a healthy legal system and good tax model.
Furthermore, there is not yet any guarantee that South Africa can handle the financial strain of developing what would need to be constructed in order to harvest any found fuel. So the seismic surveys could be putting the environment at risk for no reason.
The Need for an Updated System
The economic downside is that by blocking these operations, we are making it harder for investors to do business in South Africa. So while they may struggle to begin with, should another area show potential for fuel mining and be easier to get to, investors will simply shift their point of interest. But it is important to note that these interdicts just add to a bigger investor problem. Since it is already a difficult and lengthy process to pass anything through the South African government.
In great part, the problem is that our government policy is outdated and lags way behind international best practices. To add to this, we desperately need to modernise many of our methods. For example, the method of communication and consultation for operations such as seismic surveys.
Benefits are Not Shared
Communication is a major issue. In both the Wild Coast and the West Coast cases, one of the disputes was the lack of consultation. So while the applicants of the interdicts are not disputing that the country could economically benefit from finding oil reserves. They are arguing that the companies involved have had no discussion as to how they would share the benefits with the communities most negatively affected.
There have been examples of this in the past. Such as the copper and diamond mining booms. Where huge mining operations took place, from which the government and a few elite parties reaped benefits. Yet the everyday citizen of South Africa saw no benefits. And now, where mines have been closed, nothing but barren land is left.
Corporations, such as Shell and Searcher Seismic, need to properly consult with affected communities. Like the fishermen whose catches the seismic surveys could impact. Explain the risks and possible benefits, and ask if they are willing to share the risks, with the offer of sharing the benefits.
The Bottom Line
The truth is that neither end of the scale is correct. The people should not hold South Africa back from developing and promoting economic growth. But we also need to approach it correctly. This means, the government cannot quickly throw into play activities, such as seismic surveys, that could cause harm to the people and the environment. Proper processes must be followed. Studies and consultations need to take place. The pros and cons must be weighed against one another. And through it all, a balance needs to be found between economic growth and environmental protection. The entire situation is not just about “the green thing” but about human beings and their development.