Made into an American disaster film in 2016, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
The film revolves around events on April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the gulf, igniting a massive fireball that killed 11 crew members.
But it was what happened after the explosion that grabbed the world’s attention: the leakage over the next four months, four weeks and two days, of more than 4.9 million barrels of oil into the ocean. The slick extended over thousands of square kilometres of the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating hundreds of beaches, marshes and estuaries.
Encylopaedia Britannica estimates that 1 770km of shoreline was polluted.
The spectre of a similar disaster happening offshore of KwaZulu-Natal is a core reason Durban environmental activist Desmond D’Sa is objecting to plans by the Italian gas and oil company, Eni, to search for gas and oil at two deep-sea locations off the coast.
One of the proposed deep-sea drilling sites is 62km offshore of Richards Bay; the other 65km off Port Sheptsone’s shoreline.
D’Sa is the founder of the Durban South Community Environmental Alliance (DSCEA). About 50 members, mostly hostel dwellers from uMlazi and KwaMakhutha outside Durban, turned up at a public hearing at the Tropicana Hotel last week to provide vocal support to D’Sa’s objections to Eni’s project.
Eni, one of the world’s biggest producers, has teamed up with Sasol Africa, hoping to locate massive oil and gas reserves by drilling six exploratory wells deep into the sea bed. It was represented at last week’s public hearing by Eni South Africa managing director Allesandro Gelmetti.
Aside from two representatives from Earthlife Africa, a couple of Blue Fund Ocean Stewards and an intern at Wildlands, leading representatives of environmental organisations in the province were conspicuously absent.
A study of Eni’s scoping report shows that, by last week, fewer than 70 people had registered as interested and affected parties in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) phase of the project. This is despite the significantly harmful environmental impacts having been identified in the scoping phase.
These impacts include high levels of pollution caused by drilling and associated destruction of the seabed and, ultimately, degradation of biodiverse marine habitats which could adversely affect commercial fishing. The noise of deep-sea drilling is also believed to disrupt migratory pathways of whales, turtles and other species.
At the hearing, D’Sa voiced concern about the public consultation process.
“Where are the fishermen, tourism operators, and others who are going to be most affected by this project?” asked D’Sa.
He accused Eni’s environmental consultants, Environmental Resource Management (ERM) of failing to properly advertise the public hearing.
So began a lengthy and, at times, agitated engagement between D’Sa and Eni and ERM representatives and their hostile audience. Loud applause followed calls for Eni’s full scoping report to be translated into isiZulu, with a full account of all public engagements about the offshore drilling project.
“It must also all be explained in layman’s terms so people can understand what we are dealing with here,” said Vusi Zweni, chairperson of a hostel dwellers association.
D’Sa further demanded that the public consultation process be extended to all coastal communities from the border of Mozambique down to Mossel Bay in the Cape.
“To say you are consulting with interested and affected parties is a farce,” said D’Sa.
It was only through the skilful diplomacy of the meeting’s facilitator, David Shandler, that Eni and ERM representatives finally got to talk about the offshore drilling plans.
In summary, Eni’s gas and oil exploration project forms part of the South African government’s Operation Phakisa (“Hurry Up” in seSotho) initiative that aims to tap into the economic potential of the ocean. Through Operation Phakisa, more than 95% of the ocean and seabed falling within South Africa’s Economic Exclusive Zone are subject to rights or lease agreement to petroleum companies.
In their presentations, ERM and Eni stated that South Africa imports about 70% of its liquid fuel, which comprises crude oil and finished products. The rest mostly comes from the local production of synthetic fuel from coal and gas.
This, said Gelmetti, had brought about moves to diversify South Africa’s energy mix, resulting in increased interest in exploring the country’s seabed for gas and oil reserves.
“However, uncertainty remains high and further exploration activities are necessary to prove the viability of these resources,” said Gelmetti.
The SA Oil and Gas Alliance had estimated the country has possible resources of approximately 9 billion barrels of oil and about 60 trillion cubic feet of gas offshore.
He said if environmental authorisation was given, the drilling of the first exploration well would take place in 2019.
The subsequent question and answer session became, at times, as chaotic as the start of the hearing.
Amid heckling, Eni and ERM representatives were grilled about a wide range of issues, including exploitative practices of the gas and oil industry and alleged corruption surrounding Eni’s operations in other parts of Africa.
“You are coming here for one reason, and one reason only: to exploit our resources and leave us with nothing,” said Njabulo Ndwandwe.
Gelmetti said: “We are not here to take the resources of the country away. There is a need for energy here.”
He said if the exploration was successful, benefits could be job creation, increased government revenues and the reduce reliance on coal and need to import hydrocarbons like crude oil.
Gelmetti said he shared the audience’s concern about the need for cleaner and renewable energy.
“The climate change challenges that we live with today are very serious. We need to fight global change. Coming from a gas and oil experience, I guess I am sitting on the wrong side of the fence here, but there are things we can do,” he said.
“First, we can reduce harmful carbon emissions in our operations. Second, we can move from using less oil and more gas, which is cleaner. Third, we can invest in cleaner renewable energy.
“The transition to greener energy, in our opinion, has to happen, as quickly as possible, but it is not easy. It will require time, but we are certainly already looking at investing in renewable energy in South Africa and have created a division called Energy Solutions.”
But more questions - and further accusations - kept flying at Gelmetti and ERM.
By the end of the hearing, Shandler’s flipchart notes had bulleted more than 25 issues that Eni and ERM had been asked to provide further feedback on as part of the ongoing public consultation process.
D’Sa’s primary concern - the risk of a disaster of the magnitude of Deepwater Horizon - was not dealt with in the public hearing, but further details of his engagement with ERM about these hazards is contained in the Comments and Responses section of ERM’s draft scoping report.
In his submission, D’Sa states that given 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 KZN’s waters were exceptionally high.
He also argues that it is highly doubtful that KZN has the potential to launch a sophisticated response capability as is possible in similar operations in the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico.
“Taking this disaster into consideration, this shows that even at an international level, anything could happen. What if the same events that took place in the Gulf of Mexico were to occur here, with the exploration rig just 62km’s from the shore? This is why we have concern.”
In its response, ERM states: “A specialist oil spill modelling study will be undertaken in order to understand the fate and transport of unplanned hypothetical oil spills. Eni will develop an oil spill contingency plan prior to drilling commencement.
“In addition, Eni will prepare a detailed emergency response plan and strategy prior to drilling activities. The contents of this plan will be considered in the EIA. The capacity in South Africa for oil spill response will also be looked at in the EIA.”
On its website, Eni acknowledges that offshore operations in the oil and gas industry are inherently riskier than onshore activities.
“As the Macondo (Deepwater Horizon) accident has shown, the potential impacts of offshore accidents and spills to health, safety, security and the environment can be catastrophic due to the objective difficulties in handling hydrocarbons,” states Eni.
Given this - and the fact the DeepWater Horizon accident resulted in British Petroleum facing more $65 billion (R754bn) in damages (this is more than half South Africa’s annual budget ) - the gas and oil industry has developed comprehensive strategies to systematically manage accident risks, including equipment failures, fires and blow-outs.
While these comprehensive measures might allay some concerns, the fact remains that unforeseen accidents can still happen.
What will be done to prevent an exploration disaster ever happening on KZN’s coastline, clearly needs to be more fully explained during the ongoing EIA process.
People in South Africa, including those who are not literate in English or well versed in the technology involved in gas and oil exploration, should not be able to say, one day further down the line, that they were not warned.
In the meantime, it is clear that irrespective of how much information is provided and what safeguards put in place, many people will still share D’Sa’s view: Don’t bring any fancy oil rigs here. Full stop.
And, as Eni’s public consultation process continues, the overriding question arises: Could the benefits be worth the risks?
* People have until Thursday, February 22, to comment on ERM’s draft scoping report which is available at www.erm.com/eni-exploration-eia. A Zulu or Afrikaans version of the executive summary is available on request. E-mail: [email protected]
Note: Story has been updated