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A French-based exploration company is planning to hunt for oil and gas in a massive 121 000km2 chunk of the sea off the KwaZulu-Natal coastline early next year.
The seismic exploration survey area stretches from Port Shepstone in the south to Kosi Bay in the north, extending more than 300km out to sea and reaching depths of up to 2.5km below the sea surface.
Because it involves firing high-level, low-frequency sound waves down to the sea bed, the start of the four-month survey scheduled for March next year will be timed to avoid turtle, whale and dolphin migrations.
The geological survey company is the Paris-based CCGVeritas, which has been involved in several significant oil and gas discoveries in the Middle East, North Sea and other areas.
The survey follows a series of similar recent exploration bids off the KwaZulu-Natal coast by both Sasol and the Singapore-based Silver Wave Energy.
Further up the east African coast, the US-based Anadarko Petroleum announced a major natural gas discovery off Mozambique earlier this month.
In addition to earlier discoveries in the Pande/Temane gas fields, while America’s Exxon Mobil, Britain’s BG Group, Italy’s ENI group and Norway’s Statoil group have also announced significant finds off the coast of Tanzania.
Earlier this week, CGGVeritas announced that the Petroleum Agency of South Africa had accepted its application for a reconnaissance permit off the KZN coastline on May 24, subject to the approval of an environmental management plan.
The survey would involve firing high-pressure air guns into the sea at 10- to 20-second intervals from a specially equipped seismic ship.
The resulting air bubbles would generate sound signals from the sea floor which would be recorded by hydrophone sound receivers.
These signals would then be analysed by computers to generate two-dimensional images of the sea floor which could point to the most pro- mising undersea geological formations likely to contain oil or gas.
According to Cape Town consultancy firm CCA Environmental, the seismic survey vessel was expected to travel a total distance of 9 300km over three to four months at water depths varying between 500m and 2.5km.
Members of the public who have concerns about the exploration projects have been asked to submit comments to CCA Environmental before July 25.
According to a background information document circulated earlier this week, the seismic survey could result in “very low to low” potential impacts on turtles, dolphins, whales, sea birds and the fishing industry.
“To mitigate the potential impact on dolphins, whales and turtles it is recommended that the proposed seismic survey be planned, as far as possible, to avoid the peak turtle migration and nesting season and whale migration.
“Thus from an ecological perspective, the survey should be undertaken between early March and late May.”
The environmental management plan recommends that firing of the seismic air gun arrays (which can generate sound levels of around 230 decibels) should be preceded by “soft-start” procedures.
This involved ramping up the sound source from low to full power progressively rather than instantly.
The seismic vessel should also carry an independent marine mammal observer, who would monitor and record the reaction of sea creatures in the vicinity during the soft-start procedure.
Firing of the air guns should stop if there were obvious changes to turtle, dolphin and whale behaviour or if any of these creatures were injured or killed as a direct result of the survey.
The observer would be able to “request the temporary termination of the seismic survey, as appropriate” and prepare daily reports on the results of monitoring.
However, if observers requested a temporary halt they should have a “full understanding of the financial implications of terminating firing”.
The document suggests that while the survey is unlikely to interfere with the annual sardine run and the sharks and other predators which chase these shoals, the movement of sardine shoals should also be monitored closely during the survey.
The Navy’s Silvermine office would also be asked to issue regular radio navigation notices to alert ships to the presence of the seismic survey vessel, which would be towing air gun arrays up to 8km long.
l For more information, e-mail CCA Environmental at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Jeremy Blood at 021 461 1118.