New oil spill model on the cards for SA to protect marine biodiversity, protected areas

File photo of the DeepSea Stavanger oil and gas drill rig in Cape Town. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

File photo of the DeepSea Stavanger oil and gas drill rig in Cape Town. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jun 27, 2023


Cape Town - A new oil spill model to make it more difficult for approvals to be obtained by big industry for risky proposals that threaten marine biodiversity, marine protected areas, fisheries, tourism and coastal community livelihoods is on the cards for South Africa.

The model is the brainchild of local non-profit organisation, Wildtrust, which is focused on conserving the natural world and has spearheaded a project titled “Oil Spill Model for South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone”.

The model aims to develop a model to predict the nature, behaviour, and trajectory of oil spilt from offshore oil and gas extraction.

Strategic Lead of the Wildoceans programme at Wildtrust, Dr Jean Harris, said the model would provide “realistic scenarios” for future assessment of environmental, social, and economic risks of major blow-outs and routine spills from drilling sites being pursued in South Africa’s oceans.

Harris said: “At any given time, an average of 90% of the oceans around South Africa, the Exclusive Economic Zone – EEZ, are under lease for oil and gas exploration or extraction.

“Applications for exploratory and extractive drilling rights by oil and gas giants are being approved, yet at the same time are being objected to by many stakeholders, including NGOs, coastal communities, and fishers.”

Harris said with so much of the country’s ocean space being made “available” for oil and gas exploration or extraction, an oil spill in South African waters was a real possibility.

Ocean Modeller on the project Dr Giles Fearon said model results indicated a 15-day blow-out of light crude oil off the east coast of South Africa would have an approximately 80% chance of necessitating beach clean-up operations.

Such a spill would have a greater than 50% chance that oil concentrations would exceed the threshold for mortality of shoreline life.

Fearon said: “The fast-flowing Agulhas current, which hugs the east coast of South Africa, would transport oil large distances, hindering predictions of where oil would make contact with the shoreline, further complicating clean-up efforts in the event of a spill.

“The minimum time to shoreline impact could be as little as three days for the East Coast of South Africa, increasing to about 10 days for the South Coast and 30 days for the West Coast.”

In March, City authorities informed the public about a clean-up operation at St James tidal pool and the surrounding beach on the False Bay coast.

City officials said the low tide had exposed a possible oil spill that happened quite a few years previously at St James’s Beach. In May 1998, oil pressure build-up in a pipeline below Cape Town Harbour went undetected, leading to the pipe fracturing.

This caused approximately 500 tons of oil to leak into an escape tunnel. Before the fault was discovered, 150 tons of oil had found its way into the harbour, and five tons into Table Bay.