US energy giant ExxonMobil is facing an onslaught from environmentalists and some shareholders alleging it hid what it knew about the effects of fossil fuels on climate change. Picture: AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

Durban - Plans by an international energy giant to search for oil off Durban’s coast have been rejected by environmental bodies as irresponsible and counter-productive.

The Daily News reported earlier this month that ExxonMobil had set its sights on oil reserves off South Africa’s east coast, and announced it had acquired a 75 percent stake in the region’s exploration rights.

The company’s interest in the Tugela south exploration right and agreement with Impact Africa Limited includes future exploration rights.

The group was awarded the technical co-operation permit for deepwater Durban Basin, the company said in a recent press statement.

These exploration rights and the affiliate’s participating interest in them, said the company in a statement, were subject to government approval.

The Tugela south exploration right covered about 2.8 million acres offshore of Durban with water depths extending from the coastline to about 2km and the future exploration rights covered an additional 16 million acres offshore with water depths extending from the coastline to about 3km.

Director of the Centre for Civil Society at UKZN, Professor Patrick Bond, said the climate crisis could only be solved by leaving most fossil fuels in the ground and revising the way we consume energy through democratic planning.

“I live on the seaside at the Bluff, and given Exxon’s role in destroying the Alaska coast through systematic irresponsibility, I’m very concerned about this firm drilling for and shipping oil near Durban.

“Government can and must do more. Even in the United States, BP was recently banned from prospecting as a result of their oil spill and subsequent misbehaviour in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and in Durban, we should have long ago penalised BP for its repeated leaks and flaring at Sapref, which are partly responsible for Settlers Primary School having the world’s highest recorded asthma rate.”

He said that another potential oil disaster loomed along the east coast when on May 5, 2011 the Petroleum Agency of SA began authorising seismic oil surveying through Singapore-registered company Silver Wave Energy in water depths ranging from 30m to 2km.

Bond said that just offshore of Durban’s Cuttings Beach in 2004, residents of the area witnessed a significant oil spill of five tons at the Single Buoy Mooring, the 50m deep intake pump that fed the refineries with 80 percent of the country’s crude oil imports.

The Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA (Wessa) also raised concerns about oil and gas exploration off the coast of South Africa and deplored the lack of information on this and the possible impacts.

“It is very difficult to assess this and other applications without the technical information on the proposed activities or the impacts and effects of previous explorations. Even though these are public processes, not a lot of information is made available by the departments involved,” said Bianca Morgan, KZN conservation manager at Wessa.

She said they feared harm to areas that have important fisheries production and high biodiversity.

Morgan said marine protected areas should be “no-go” areas for oil exploration and mining.

She said the effect on dolphins and whales of seismic surveying, that is used in oil exploration, needed to be investigated.

Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman, Zingaphi Jakuja, told the Daily News that the agreement to begin exploration had yet to be approved.

“It is expected that the companies will lodge an application requesting the requisite ministerial consent and only then will the agreement receive approval.”

She said the exploration rights in question had been granted for an initial period of three years and might be renewed three times for a period of two years each time it is renewed – it was issued on May 5, 2011.

Jakuja said the exploration rights had been issued so acquisition of the seismic data could be investigated.

“And since the seismic surveys are transient in nature, no long-term environmental impacts are yet envisaged. The immediate environmental impacts which relates to the potential impact to cetaceans (sea mammals), turtles and potential pollution from discharges may occur though their significance rated to range from low to very low impacts with mitigation measures,” she said. - Daily News