Damage to the environment caused by oil spills can involve animals being drenched in oil, like these penguins and gannets that are recovering at Sanccob Seabird Rehabilitation Centre. Photo: Sanccob
Cape Town – Proposed oil and gas exploration off the coast of South Africa has raised fears of another Deepwater Horizon-like incident.

The Wild Trust, with a marine conservation programme, Wild Oceans, submitted comment on Environmental Resources Management’s (ERM) Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) application on behalf of Italian oil company Eni, which is seeking environmental authorisation to drill up to six deep-water wells offshore of the East Coast of South Africa.

On September 17, ERM notified interested and affected parties that a new EIA process approved by the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (Pasa) had commenced, and a draft EIA report was made available for public comment.

Wild Oceans executive director Jean Harris said the assessment downplayed the impact of the offshore drilling.

“A key concern relating to any offshore oil and gas exploration drilling programme is the risk of a catastrophic oil spill occurring, and the environmental and socio-economic impacts such a spill can have.”

He added that the ecological and socio-economic impacts associated with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon well blow-out and subsequent oil spill clearly illustrated this risk.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill began in April 2010 off the Gulf of Mexico and resulted in the release of 124million gallons of oil, over 112146km.

“The released oil was toxic to a wide range of organisms, including fish, invertebrates, plankton, birds, turtles and mammals and caused a wide array of toxic effects, including death, disease, reduced growth, impacted reproduction, and physiological impairments that made it more difficult for organisms to survive and reproduce.”

Wild Oceans commissioned Kirsten Youens of Youens Attorneys in drafting their submission.

She said: “The level of insurance Eni has to cover the clean-up costs of a catastrophic oil spill has not been ­disclosed in the draft EIA report by ERM.

“The draft EIA report also fails to adequately describe and quantify the socio-economic impacts (costs) of a catastrophic oil spill.”

ERM conducted an “oil spill dispersion modelling” as part of the EIA, and concluded that the after-mitigation impacts arising from a major oil spill ranged from low to moderate significance.

However, the submission identified several flaws in the modelling that would significantly affect the modelling results and subsequent significance ratings.

“If the Department of Mineral Resources grants environmental authorisation to Eni, we will take it on appeal to the Department of Environmental Affairs,” commented Youens, “and pending the outcome of the appeal, the project would be suspended.”