Petrol and oil heavyweight Shell has come under fire for its plan to conduct an exploration for fossil fuels on South Africa’s Wild Coast, with activists and advocates highlighting the risk of damage to the local environment and its wildlife. 

Towards the end of 2021, a petition was put together by the Oceans Not Oil coalition — individuals and organisations who've come together to stand against South Africa’s continued fossil fuel dependence — and initially sent to the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment. The petition, along with a letter from concerned citizens, was then addressed to Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Gwede Mantashe and called for his approval of the seismic survey to be withdrawn. The petition garnered nearly 400,000 signatures by Dec. 5, 2021.

Environmentalists, marine activists, and the general public have held numerous protests (more than 60 as of January 2022) along the streets and beaches of South Africa, including in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Plettenberg Bay — where the survey is set to be conducted.

They are concerned about further damage that fossil fuels will cause to the natural environment, the noise pollution that will be created, marine life that will be affected — which includes endangered species — and the livelihoods of already disadvantaged communities.

3 Key Facts About Shell’s Planned Exploration

  1. Shell’s seismic survey involves loud underwater explosions, reaching 220 decibels, which marine life will be sensitive to.

  2. The exploration has the potential to result in negative consequences for locals and businesses who depend on eco-tourism and fishing.

  3. Should the planned exploration be successful, it will open the door to continued use of fossil fuels for energy.

Timeline of Events

On Nov. 21, 2021, activists from across the country began protesting the arrival of the "Amazon Warrior", the survey ship, on South African shores. It has been an uphill battle since then. More protests were held over the month and more citizens became involved in the stand against Shell’s fossil fuel exploration, which is set to be conducted by Shearwater GeoServices on behalf of the petrol company.

On Nov. 29, environmental and human rights activists from Greenpeace Africa, Natural Justice, the Border Deep Sea Angling Association, and the Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club submitted a court bid against the petrochemical giant in an effort to stop the company in its tracks.

Unfortunately for activists, on Dec. 3 a South African court ruled in favour of the multinational corporation, sparking outrage among environmentalists and concerned citizens.

Shell had already started with the survey on Dec. 8, 2021 despite protestation from environmentalists, human rights activists, and fishing communities concerned with the Wild Coast.

However, in a temporary win for environmentalists, the Makhanda high court ruled to halt the exploration on Dec. 28, as Shell did not have the necessary environmental approvals. The company has since stopped the survey while they review the court’s judgement and it says it respects the court's decision.

What Is a Seismic Survey?

A seismic survey is an underground investigation or search for oil or gas deposits. According to a statement made on Shell’s official website, the corporation wants to oversee a 3D seismic survey off South Africa’s Eastern Cape shoreline (on which the Wild Coast can be found) to explore potential hydrocarbon reserves beneath the seabed.

In a nutshell, Shell’s seismic vessel would fire air guns every 10 seconds for 24 hours reaching deep beneath the ocean’s surface. This would result in extremely loud shock waves that penetrate deep into the water and about 40 km into the earth’s crust below the seabed.  

According to Daily Maverick, the survey is just one of a few offshore exploration projects that are either currently underway or planned to go ahead along the coast of South Africa in the near future. There are no fewer than four planned surveys waiting to take place.

Who Would Be Most Affected and Why?

The Wild Coast is one of the most unspoiled beaches in southern Africa, however, while this process is underway, marine wildlife would be disturbed and the immediate environment potentially harmed.

Animals that would be impacted by this activity include (but aren't limited to) dolphins, turtles, the eggs of fish and squid, and more specifically migrating hump-back whales that breed in the area would face the brunt of the disruption. In addition, the livelihoods of the fishermen and communities with businesses that depend on eco-tourism would be greatly impacted.  

Speaking to the Daily Maverick, Carmen Mannarino, the programme director of Masifundise Development Trust, an organisation that supports small-scale fishing communities in advocating for legal recognition, said that Eastern Cape communities have fought long and hard for their fishing rights and they should not be sold for profit. She went on to mention that some members of the community also rely on the area to continue their cultural practices.

“As we have seen in other areas of the country and the world, these kinds of activities can be highly disruptive for the marine fauna, and change patterns of migration and movement of fish species. This leads to fishing communities not having the same access, and reduced harvests,” said Mannarino.

The plans for exploration come at a critical time in the fight against the climate crisis, with an urgent global need to reduce carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. 

In fact, the International Energy Agency has warned that no new fossil fuel projects can go ahead if the world is going to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and defeat climate change.

What Does Shell Say?

Shell says that by conducting the survey they would be acting within the jurisdiction of the law, however that doesn't mean that it's acting in the interest of the environment.

Shell’s legal representative, advocate Adrian Friedman, said that seismic surveys have been conducted around the world for over 50 years while also being the subject of extensive peer-reviewed scientific research for the last 15 years.

Minister of Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, has defended the exploration. “Africa deserves an equal chance to develop its economies on the strength of her natural resources,” Mantashe said at a media briefing. This is despite President Cyril Ramaphosa committing that the country would transition away from coal and fossil fuel consumption, at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in November 2021.

What Action Can We All Take to Help?

We can all support environmentalists and activists in their mission to defeat the climate crisis and defend the planet. To help protect South Africa's Wild Coast, you can research protests both online and in-person you can join, and find a selection of petitions to sign collated by Greenpeace Africa here

You can also use your platforms, like your social media, to speak out (for example, by sharing this article) and educate those around you to help make sure that corporations too play their part to help combat climate change and identify ways to conduct business in a manner that doesn't harm the environment and its inhabitants.

You can also join Global Citizen's Defend the Planet campaign, by taking action with us to call on business leaders and world leaders to prioritise the planet, cut carbon emissions, end reliance on fossil fuels, fully finance efforts for adaptation and mitigation, and more. 

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