Durban - Durban environmental activists have vehemently rejected an application by multi-national energy giant ExxonMobil to explore for oil and gas offshore along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, citing the company’s poor environmental track record as a major concern.
A major worry is also the effects of seismic surveys on whales and dolphins.
Activists and subsistence fishermen were almost unanimous in their call at a public meeting in Austerville last night to resist ExxonMobil Exploration & Production South Africa Limited’s recent application to the Petroleum Agency South Africa (Pasa) for an exploration right in the so-called “Deepwater Durban Exploration Area” offshore.
Interested and affected parties have been asked to comment on the application and the draft Environmental Management Programme (EMPr), released on December 12.
South Durban Community Environmental Alliance chairman, Desmond D’Sa, and other environmental activists, fishermen and residents expressed disgust at the way the public meeting was convened by ExxonMobil and told its representatives, including its general manager Russ Berkoben, to “go home” because “apartheid is over”.
They said they felt that the company’s attempt to engage with locals was not genuine, citing its poor environmental track record internationally.
Berkoben declined to respond to the concerns and allegations raised, saying the company would only respond to comments formally submitted as part of the EMPr process.
It was alleged at the meeting, attended by 28 people, that the draft report was poorly advertised, mostly in community newspapers.
According to a summary of the report: “The proposed Deepwater Durban Exploration Area is located far from the coast and in deep water.”
It is about 50km offshore, 60km south-east of Port Edward, at its nearest point. It extends to 380km from the coast, covering about 50 000km2 in water between 2 200 and 3 600m deep.
According to the document “key environmental considerations identified” included the effects of seismic surveys on marine life, especially mammals; interference with fishing activities; effects on tourism and recreation; interference with marine traffic and discharges of waste by the survey vessels.
Mitigation measures put in place would include planning the surveys to avoid sensitive migration periods for marine mammals and having a professional marine mammal observer onboard to watch for marine animals.
Other mitigating measures would include delaying the start of airgun firing if the mammals are too close and to use a “soft-start” process where the noise is gradually increased to allow mammals to swim away.
However, D’Sa said the use of seismic surveys posed a potential danger to marine life, citing a 2003 Greenpeace report that highlighted the harm to marine mammals. Potential injuries include permanent hearing loss, disorientation, brain haemorrhaging and death.
“Seismic testing spells danger for marine life and human life. Whales and porpoises are going to die. They will destroy all of that,” D’Sa said.
D’Sa said the move would destroy tourism jobs, and take away the livelihood of fishermen on the coast including at Aliwal Shoal in Umkomaas and along the Wild Coast. “Our children’s future is at stake here. We are going to stop them in their tracks. They should go back home,” D’Sa said.
“We have the Wild Coast but it will be destroyed by these greedy mongers. This is something I am prepared to die for. It’s not acceptable,” D’Sa said.
D’Sa added that the company had “undermined the local community” by hosting a poster display instead of addressing residents in a formal presentation and giving them a chance to collectively ask questions and engage with the company on its proposed exploration programme.
“This is very wrong. This is not a public participation process. It is flawed,” D’Sa said.
Earthlife Africa committee member, Alice Thomson, cited ExxonMobil’s “appalling environmental record” saying it was time to move away from fossil fuels. “We cannot allow exploration for oil off our coast to go ahead. ExxonMobil is responsible for many oil spills including the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.
“As a result 11 million US gallons of oil were discharged resulting in the estimated deaths of 250 000 seabirds, 2 800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals and countless other marine life,” Thomson said.
“The fishing industry has still not recovered.”
In 2013, the US Department of Justice and the State of Arkansas filed a lawsuit suing ExxonMobil over the rupture of the company’s Pegasus pipeline, which spilled thousands of barrels of crude tar sands oil over the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, Thomson said.
Thomson added that other spills included Exxon’s Brooklyn oil spill and its Yellowstone River oil spill where a pipeline break leaked 159 000 litres of oil into the Yellowstone River.
“Could we face the situation with massive oil spills decimating our coast, destroying the fishing, tourism and recreational services that it provides? We cannot even allow this company to explore for oil given its track record,” Thomson said.
She said the country needed to move to a low-carbon economy by cutting down on energy consumed.
“SA needs to do this by improving public transport, creating green jobs by transitioning to renewable energy, and localising our economies, therefore cutting down the distance that goods travel,” Thomson said.
Michael Padayachee, an executive committee member of the KZN Subsistence Fishermen’s Forum, said it was “upsetting” to find so few people at the meeting.
“They are going to rob us of our livelihood because the whales and dolphins chase the fish to the shores to help us catch them so we can live off the ocean,” Padayachee said.
“I don’t know what they are hiding,” Padayachee said.
Pastor Earl Wilkinson arrived at the meeting and lambasted one of the consultants hired by Exxon to produce the EMPr. He said the company had not advertised the process sufficiently, which was why there was a poor turn-out.
Umbilo resident Vanessa Burger said the meeting was “a joke”.
“It symbolises the multi-national’s arrogance in the way they deal with communities as they work hand in hand with government.
“It’s disrespectful to the community,” Burger said.
However, Austerville resident Bob Williams said exploration could be beneficial if jobs were created and there were no adverse environmental effects.
Berkoben declined to comment on residents’ outrage at the way the meeting had been convened or on the company’s environmental track record, saying this was not part of the current process.
“It is the industry standard that this process is following. We would encourage people to put down their concerns (in writing) and we can respond with further explanations.”
He said Pasa could also call a public hearing during the process to deal with concerns raised.
According to the EMPr the discovery of oil and gas would contribute to the country’s economic growth, create job opportunities, increase government revenues and the local supply of oil and gas products.
Exploration will commence in 2015 if the application is approved. The draft EMPr is available for comment at:
www.erm.com/deepwaterdurbanEMPR. The deadline for comments is March 10.