This is one of the ironies emerging from a provisional study of an OffShore Drilling Scoping Report released last week - and then subsequently withdrawn - by the Italian gas and oil company Eni.
The Eni gas and oil exploration project forms part of the South African government’s Operation Phakisa (hurry up) initiative that aims to tap into the economic potential of the ocean.
Eni is one the world’s biggest gas and oil producers. Africa provides more than half of Eni’s total production of oil and natural gas, amounting to 1 572 million barrels of oil a day since 2016.
In exploring for gas and oil along the KwaZulu-Natal coast, ENI has teamed up with Sasol, hoping to locate oil and gas reserves under the sea bed at depths of between 3.8km - 4.8 km.
For growing numbers of interested and affected parties opposed to the project, there is good news - the project stalled within a week of the scoping report being released.
This followed queries being submitted to ENI’s environmental consultant, Environmental Resource Management (ERM) about impacts that offshore drilling for oil and gas reserves would have on the deep-sea and coastal habitats of the KZN coast.
The ENI report, released for public comment on October 30, had revealed that ENI would start drilling within a 1 840km2 prospecting area, stretching from Port Shepstone in the south to St Lucia in the north, within a year from now, if environmental authorisation was given by the South African government.
A key question, however, arose: would the planned approval process give environmental consultants sufficient time to properly assess the risk of oil and gas blow-outs arising from offshore drilling operations; and what significant environmental impacts would the drilling cause, including sea-floor degradation, offshore pollution and destruction of marine habitats?
ERM never answered this question. Instead they withdrew ENI’s application, and issued a statement advising that an updated scoping report would be released for public comment early next year. Clarifying the matter, ERM senior consultant Lindsey Bungartz said the final scoping report would contain additional information.
Effectively this means that interested and affected parties now have more time to study the draft scoping report released on October 30.
Bungartz said stakeholders would be given “optimal time allowed for by legislation” to comment and participate in the EIA process once the updated scoping report was released.
While ENI’s scoping report identified several areas of concern, not much information was given as to what would be done to prevent pollution, sea bed and marine habitat destruction, significant impacts on the commercial fishing industry and adverse effects on whales and dolphins.
The scoping report also identified climate change resulting from the high level of fuel consumption and corresponding air emissions during the exploratory drilling phase as a “potentially significant” impact.
The report states that the air emissions containing carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and associated volatile organic compounds could “result in a short-term localised increase in pollutant concentrations” and “contribute to regional and global atmospheric pollution”.
On blow-out risks, ERM acknowledged the possible disastrous marine pollution consequences - and health and safety risks - but provided no risk assessment, or details of any research into how often blow-outs of oil and gas occur in other drilling explorations around the world.
The possibility of blow-outs is one of the reasons the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance argues that the project should be condemned.
“What if the same events that took place in the Gulf of Mexico were to occur here, with the exploration rig just 62km from our shore?” asked alliance co-ordinator Desmond D’Sa.
D’Sa was referring to the 2010 blow-out and explosion at the DeepWater Horizon ultra-deep drilling rig which killed 11 people and spilled about 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The spill impacted on 180 000 km2 of ocean, twice the size of KZN.
D’Sa said in view of the inhospitable character of South Africa’s offshore sea, together with increasing cyclonic disturbances associated with global warming, the hazards of operating an offshore drilling rig in KwaZulu-Natal’s sea were exceptionally high. - www.rovingreporters.co.za
This story, also published by GroundUp, forms part of Roving Reporters Ocean Watch series supported by the Human Elephant Foundation and The Blue Fund - a joint Grindrod Bank and Wildlands marine conservation initiative.