Closing in on the Cape: South Africa Offshore Exploration
approximate location of the seismic survey off the Wild Coast
Offshore oil and gas expansion starts with a bang. The loud blasts of seismic surveys signal the beginning of exploration. In recent years, these blasts have become terrifyingly familiar to coastal communities in South Africa. All along the South African coast, companies like Impact Oil and Gas, Shell and TotalEnergies are conducting seismic surveys to search for new oil and gas deposits. The continuous detonations from the survey ships create an underwater hell for whales and other animals living in the ocean. Luckily, the oil and gas companies’ blasts have not been able to shatter the barriers set up by indigenous resistance, environmental defenders and the South African Constitution.
The Race Is On
As of 2023, the state-owned PetroSA is the only company producing oil and gas offshore in South Africa.14915 Fossil fuel companies now want this to change. Currently, around 20 oil and gas companies hold stakes in the oil and gas blocks that line most of the South African coast.1498914917 Approximately half of these companies are not from Africa. Shell, TotalEnergies, Qatar Energy, and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd are some of the more prominent players hoping to hit the jackpot in the South African waters and bring home profits to boardrooms in London, Paris, Doha, and Calgary. Their South African partners, like Main Street or Sunbird Energy, also hope to fill their pockets with fossil money, regardless of the social and environmental effects.
The Invisible Threat
For now, the South African oil and gas boom is hardly visible to the naked eye. However, the maps of the South African Petroleum Agency make strikingly clear what is on the horizon for coastal communities. All around the southern tip of the African continent – almost every inch of South African ocean is part of an oil and gas block.14919 In fact, oil and gas blocks cover approximately 95% of South Africa’s marine environment. Despite South Africa’s exceptional marine biodiversity, only 5% of the ocean lies within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that prohibit oil and gas exploration and production.14921
East, west, south: International oil and gas companies are looking for oil and gas everywhere. In the west, TotalEnergies has set its eyes on deepwater drilling in the Orange Basin. Together with Impact Oil and Gas and Qatar Energy, the company has applied for environmental authorization to go forward with exploration activities.1492314991 In addition, the French major teamed up with Shell and state-owned PetroSA in 2022 to drill up to 5 exploration wells off the southwest coast.1492514927 At the same time, TotalEnergies is hoping to develop the Brulpadda and Luiperd gas and condensate fields it found together with local company Main Street and international partners in 2019.1492914931 The fields lie deep beneath the Indian Ocean, on the southern coast outside Port Elizabeth. UK-based major Shell has several projects going on in South Africa in addition to its cooperation with TotalEnergies. The company holds a stake in a block offshore the Northern Cape and, most prominently, off the Eastern Cape.14933 Shell and its partner Impact Oil and Gas want to search for fossil fuels under the coral-covered seabed off the Wild Coast.14935
Loud and Risky Business
When the oil and gas companies buy stakes in a license and apply for exploration rights off the South African Coast, they are investing in a black box. They do not know where or if they will find oil and gas within the block. To find the oil and gas deposits and estimate the size of the reserves hidden deep under the seabed, they use seismic surveys.
Although many people know that oil and gas production carries a great danger of spills and accidents, few recognize the risks attached to exploration activities that take place years before production begins. Besides signaling the start of more climate-killing fossil expansion, seismic surveys have numerous disastrous effects of their own. Seismic survey ships use so-called airguns to send loud blasts through the water and deep into the ground every 10-15 seconds around the clock. By analyzing the sound that comes back to the surface, the companies create detailed models of the seabed. Each blast is as loud as a rocket launch, and the surveys often go on for months.14937 The sound travels down and into the seabed, but also in all other directions. Like the shock wave from an explosion, it spreads from the source to all sides. Because water is such an effective sound transmitter, the noise from an airgun can travel hundreds of kilometers. A blast can be just as loud at 12 km distance as 2 km away.14939
The noise from seismic surveys interferes with the life cycle of marine mammals and fish.14941 Whales and other marine mammals use sound for communication, orientation and hunting.14943 The noise from seismic surveys can make it difficult for whales to find food and communicate with their children. The blasts can deafen fish temporarily or even permanently.14945 At worst, the sound can even kill the animals. For the tiniest residents of the ocean, the sound is lethal at a massive scale. Researchers have found that seismic surveys kill zooplankton in a radius of at least 1 km from the blast.14947 Zooplankton are at the bottom of the food chain. Big and small fish, whales and dolphins live off them. When the zooplankton die, the animals have to live off less food or find new feeding grounds. Seismic noise sends shocks throughout the whole ecosystem.14949 In South Africa, subsistence fishing provides work for tens of thousands of people and food for many more.14951 Putting the fish at risk is a direct threat to their livelihoods.
Blasting the Wild Coast
In 2021, the South African subsidiaries of Shell and Impact Oil and Gas began to prepare a seismic survey off the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape province. Like many places along the South African coastline, the Wild Coast biodiversity is dazzling. The mix of swift currents from the cool Atlantic in the west and warmer Indian Ocean in the east gives rise to a paradise of marine life all along the South African coast. Off the Wild Coast, the water transitions from subtropical to warm. Here, numerous fish species find protection from overfishing.14953 Colorful lace corals cover the seabed, creating an endless exotic underwater garden. The steep cliffs, sandy shores and subtidal reefs are home to many species that do not live anywhere else.14955 Between May and December, thousands of whales and dolphins pass the Wild Coast. Most of them are hunting the billions of sardines that swim with the cooler winter current towards Mozambique. Humpback whales pass by on their way from Antarctica to breed and calve in warmer waters.14957 Three Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Dwesa-Cwebe, Hluleka and Pondoland, ensure that large parts of the coast and sea are out of bounds for oil and gas exploration and other industrial activities.14959 The Amathole Offshore MPA lies directly south of the Wild Coast. Even though Shell and Impact Oil and Gas knew that seismic noise would travel beyond the borders of these protected areas, the companies planned their exploration just outside the four MPAs.14961
When Shell and Impact Oil and Gas arrived on the Wild Coast, indigenous communities had reason to fear the potential consequences of the exploration plans. Indigenous people have lived along the Wild Coast for centuries, long before anyone had heard of oil, gas or Marine Protected Areas. They have deep spiritual and cultural ties to the ocean. Seismic surveys in other parts of the country had raised many questions and provided the indigenous communities with few answers. In 2016, US company Schlumberger extended a seismic survey into the South African whale migration period. The same year, a record number of whales stranded on the beaches of KwaZulu Natal. Later investigations found no clear link between the survey and the strandings, but the event alerted researchers and indigenous environmental defenders. If seismic surveys could potentially kill a massive animal like the whale, how would they affect the rest of the ecosystem? As Sinegugu Zukulu, a member of Sustaining the Wild Coast from the Amadiba community, put it: “[We] are the conservationists of the sea in our area, using practices handed down to us over generations”.14963 The Umgungundlovu, Dwesa-Cwebe, Port Saint Johns, and other indigenous communities know better than anyone that the true value of their home easily exceeds the short-term profits of oil and gas companies.14965
Turning the Tide
Despite mounting protests against their project, Shell and Impact Oil and Gas moved forward with their exploration plans off the Wild Coast. The survey ship “Amazon Warrior” began its work on 1 December 2021.14967 The day after the survey began, a coalition of indigenous people, fishing communities and NGOs filed a court case against the companies and the ministry that had issued the exploration permit. Four weeks later, the court granted them a major win, temporarily halting the seismic survey with immediate effect.14969 Eventually, on 1 September 2022, the court completely annulled the exploration right granted to Shell and Impact Oil in 2014. It recognized the communities’ constitutional rights to their land and small-scale fishing.14971 Judge President Mbenenge argued that the oil and gas companies had not given Wild Coast communities the possibility to voice their opinion and emphasized that “meaningful consultations consist not in the ticking of a checklist, but in engaging in a […] substantive two-way process aimed at achieving, as far as possible, consensus.”14973 The judge also argued for a precautionary approach to seismic surveys due to the lack of scientific consensus on its effects.14975 The oil and gas companies and the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy have appealed the decision, but even the court does not expect the appeal to succeed.14977 In 2023, the Supreme High Court of Appeal will hear the case.
The Wild Coast case has shown people across South Africa that it is possible to stand up to the oil and gas industry. Since then, new coalitions have formed to take on companies that want to conduct seismic surveys in other parts of the coast. In 2022, the survey companies Searcher Geodata from the UK and Searcher Seismic from Australia had to leave the western coast after a court ruled in favor of environmental defenders.14981 The companies are planning to return to survey an area the size of Belgium, but The Green Connection and other environmental organizations are prepared to fight them again. On top of that, oil major TotalEnergies is feeling the heat from activists. The campaign “Our Ocean TOTAL destruction” aims to put an end to Total’s plan of developing the Brulpadda and Luiperd fields in the southern part of the country.14983
“Winning this means we are all moving towards an understanding that we need to find sustainable livelihoods; we need to move away from fossil fuels. This is for the good of everyone. Allowing Shell and the government to continue exploring for oil and gas and other fossil fuels would be detrimental to everybody’s lives and to the life of the planet. Winning means a sustainable life on this planet. A victory for the planet. Victory for future generations. It is not about us. We are in this fight for the good of the planet and the good of future generations.”
Sinegugu Zuzkulu, Sustaining the Wild Coast14979
The local protests and legal battles across South Africa are all part of a major effort to stop exploration in South African waters once and for all.14985 Environmental organizations, indigenous communities and ocean defenders all hope to turn the tide towards a renewable energy future.14987 Indigenous people, fishers and environmental groups are not afraid to fight for their rights in court. The country’s constitution and strict environmental laws give courts the tools they need to uphold human rights and defend nature. Small exploration firms, national oil companies and global oil and gas majors must all expect resistance.
Groups working on South Africa Offshore Exploration: Sustaining the Wild Coast, Natural Justice, Centre for Environmental Rights, The Green Connection, Oceans Not Oil, BLOOM, All Rise Attorneys for climate and environmental justice, Dwesa-Cwebe communal property association, Fair Finance Coalition SA, Life after Coal, Greenpeace Africa
boost investment in offshore oil and gas. The government’s aim was that oil and gas companies would
open up 30 exploration wells by 2024.
See Bloom Association and The Green Connection 2022: Our Ocean TOTAL Destruction P.4
For more details on HCI's role, see this Open Letter
Note: Shell defined a buffer zone of 5 km from the MPAs
For the original statement, see https://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAECMKHC/2022/114.html