Desmond D'Sa
Desmond D'Sa

Why we should stop oil and gas drilling offshore KZN

By Desmond D'Sa Time of article published Nov 7, 2018

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OPINION -  The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) has 16 community and environmental organisations in our network, all increasingly opposed to oil and gas exploration underway on our coast. The exploration is already doing damage to marine life and tourism, and future drilling also threatens humanity and all of nature due to climate change.

KwaZulu-Natal is a popular home as well as destination for visitors partly because of the province’s beautiful beaches. Healthy oceans are critically important to marine life and to coastal communities whose economies rely on tourism, fishing and recreational activities.

Opening up new offshore areas to drilling by the likes of ExxonMobil, the Italian firm ENI, Sasol and Norway’s Statoil will risk permanent damage, especially if we suffer huge oil spills such as occurred when ExxonMobil’s Valdez tanker wrecked the Alaska coast and BP destroyed so much aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico when an oil drilling rig blew up.

With unaccountable companies like these drilling offshore Durban, we face added risks of an oil spill ruining our beaches, bringing harm to those who live, work and vacation along the coasts, as well as destroying habitats critical to plants and animal species. Along the KZN coastline, more than 50 000 subsistence fisher folk eke out a living daily. Oil spills can quickly traverse vast distances.

Even early-stage exploration causes environmental degradation, because when seismic tests are conducted, fish and even whales are either killed or forced to leave the area. The website ‘Oceans not Oil’ –  – documents our concerns about the unusually high number of recent whale beachings along our coastline.

As a result, we are now forcefully contesting all these firms’ Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) statements. When initiated by fossil fuel corporations, they typically lack integrity due to the firms’ enormous power and endless dishonesty. Even New York’s state attorney general sued ExxonMobil last month because of its “longstanding fraudulent scheme… concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change regulation.”

At a time South African leaders are seeking Foreign Direct Investment, these companies’ promises of trickle-down benefits to our shrinking foreign reserves and to the huge pool of unemployed labour are apparently mesmerizing – but they are also deceptive, because extractive industries engage in the worst of Africa’s notorious Illicit Financial Flows, and because oil rigs, refining and transport are all capital-intensive, requiring only a few skilled workers.

We owe future generations, our current coastal residents and our marine life much more rigour than government has provided to date in the EIA process. Vast ecological threats are rising rapidly, beyond the drilling and extraction stages now under consideration, extending into oil and gas refining which happens in South Durban more than anywhere else in Africa, in transport through Transnet’s dubious pipelines, and in the combustion of oil and gas. A full-cost accounting is required.

To illustrate, South Durban refineries run by BP, Shell and Engen have been devastating to our air, land and water quality. We conclusively demonstrated this by showing that Settlers Primary school students suffered a 52% asthma rate, the world’s highest ever recorded. This research forced municipal officials to belatedly insist on sulfur scrubbing that has made an improvement – yet the refineries’ CO2 emissions causing climate change are worse than ever.

As for transporting the fuel, numerous pipeline blow-outs on the Durban-Johannesburg pipeline in recent years have been devastating. Yet instead of following the safest existing path for a new pipeline (which will eventually double the capacity flow of petroleum westward), Transnet decided on a brand new route. Instead of following the N3 westwards, it now takes a ridiculous, racist southern detour through low-income black communities like South Durban and Umbumbulu. This added hundreds of extra kilometers and helped raise the cost from R6 billion to R27 billion.

Even the Minister of Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba admitted in 2012 that KZN pipeline construction suffered “systemic failings” since “Transnet Capital Projects lacked sufficient capacity and depth of experience for the client overview of a megaproject of this complexity. There was an inadequate analysis of risks.”

He confessed that the Durban-Joburg pipeline is profoundly flawed: “Transnet’s obligations on the project such as securing authorisations – EIAs, land acquisition for right of way, water and wetland permits – were not pursued with sufficient foresight and vigour.”

The threat of oil and gas combustion is even greater due to a climate change crisis now increasingly evident in KZN. The recent droughts, thunderstorms, other extreme weather events and added costs of adaptation are never considered by these oil and gas corporations. The largest of these, ExxonMobil, is a notorious climate denialist, even though from the 1970s it already possessed extensive documentation of climate damage resulting from its core business model. It chose to threaten our planet’s very future so it could maximise profits.

The offshore oil and gas exploration and subsequent drilling now under consideration would bust our government’s own (very inadequate) carbon-budget strategy of peaking and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 34% from 2030. If government officials approve the exploration and then drilling, they are no better than Donald Trump.

Finally, although the oil companies predict economic benefits will accrue to South Africa, this is because they have failed to provide full-cost accounting. For example, they ignore ‘natural capital accounting’ which the late Environment Minister Edna Molewa committed South Africa to supporting at the 2012 Gaborone Declaration meeting. Once fossil fuel reserves are measured as not simply a ‘credit’ to Gross Domestic Product, but also as a ‘debit’ to the country’s natural wealth (since these resources do not regenerate), it becomes evident that the extraction systems run by multinational corporations are not a positive but instead a negative contributor to South Africa’s overall wealth.

All these factors should be fatal to the proposed oil and gas drilling, even at exploration stage. The Legal Resources Centre and other socio-environmental watchdogs are helping SDCEA make this our most important campaign going immediately forward.

But we desperately need society to ask the question: instead of remaining addicted to such dangerous, dinosaur forms of fuel, can we not put pressure on our politicians to urgently convert South Africa to renewable energy, public transport and non-fossil agriculture, as soon as possible?

Desmond D’Sa is a 2014 Goldman Prize Recipient, Africa and the South Durban Community Envrionmental Alliance Coordinator

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