Court order blocks Shell’s seismic surveys off South Africa’s Wild Coast

A South African court has ordered oil giant Shell to suspend plans for seismic blasting along the country’s Wild Coast, in a decision hailed by environmentalists.

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SOURCEMongabay
  • A petition by environmentalists, Indigenous groups and fisheries organizations succeeded in temporarily halting oil giant Shell’s plans to conduct seismic surveys off South Africa’s Wild Coast to prospect for oil and gas reserves below the seabed.
  • Conservation groups cited the potential impact on the breeding grounds of southern right whales and humpback whales, and the effect on the local fisheries sector.
  • The recent order hinges on whether affected communities that hold traditional rights, including fishing rights in the waters, were properly consulted.
  • The judge ruled that they were not, while also noting that concerns about irreversible harm to marine life were “reasonable.”

A South African court has ordered oil giant Shell to suspend plans for seismic blasting along the country’s Wild Coast, in a decision hailed by environmentalists.

The Dutch oil giant is prospecting off the coast of Eastern Cape province for viable oil and gas reserves below the seabed.

“The case is not just about Shell — it is about both protecting human rights and animal rights which are both enshrined in the constitution,” Nonhle Mbuthuma, founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), said in a statement in response to the Dec. 28 ruling. The ACC traces its origins to a movement to fight titanium mining in South Africa’s Pondoland region.

Conservation organizations are up in arms because of the potential impact on whale breeding grounds in the region. During the austral winter between July and December, southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate into South Africa’s waters to give birth.

Seismic surveys use soundwaves to map the terrain beneath the seafloor for pockets of oil or gas. Shell says dozens of such surveys have been done in South Africa with no known significant impacts.

Two applications were filed in South African courts by environmental groups, Indigenous rights groups, and tourism and fishing associations to halt the surveys. On Dec. 3, the court dismissed one of the applications, effectively allowing the seismic survey to proceed and sparking concern that the blasting would start before year-end.

A protest against Shell’s seismic blasting plans in South Africa. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

The current order arising from the second application did not determine whether the seismic surveys would harm biodiversity, but noted that the concerns about irreversible harm to marine life were “reasonable.”

Opponents also raised concerns about the impact on the local fishing industry. They foregrounded the spiritual and cultural value of the sea for Indigenous communities. “As coastal communities, we have relied on the sea for centuries — and we are glad that the judge has recognized that our ocean livelihoods must not be sacrificed for short-term profit,” Mbuthuma said.

The recent order hinges on whether affected communities who hold traditional rights, including fishing rights in the waters, were properly consulted. The judge ruled that they were not. He also directed the company and South Africa’s minister of mineral resources and energy to pay for the costs of the application.

Shell South Africa and the minister did not immediately respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. However, on its website, the company said that it “respects the court decision in relation to the Wild Coast survey and has suspended the survey while we review the judgment.”

The applications were filed to block Shell’s plans to conduct the surveys, but the case is far from closed.

In further hearings, the judiciary will take up another part of the application that raises the question of whether Shell requires an environmental authorization under South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act for its exploratory activities in the region.

Petitioners in both cases jointly issued a call for funds to finance their legal battles, with an initial goal of raising 3 million rand ($190,000) by Jan. 5, 2022.

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