Oil be damned: Mining interests ‘blocking plan to protect SA’s seas’
New marine protected areas are being delayed because the oil industry is pressuring the minister, eco alliance charges
Plans to set aside a modest 5% of SA’s ocean territory as protected marine parks have been put on hold after “push-back” from the Mineral Resources Department and the fossil fuel industry.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa published plans in the Government Gazette to establish 22 new marine protected areas (MPAs) along the coastline, which would have placed these areas permanently out of reach for oil and gas exploration and other ecologically damaging ventures.
The country has a very small network of MPAs which provide formal protection for just 0.4% of the country’s 370km-wide exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In terms of the expansion plan announced by Molewa in February 2016, the percentage of ocean to be set aside for formal protection would increase to 5%, compared with almost 90% of the EEZ currently allocated for oil and gas exploration by the Petroleum Agency of SA.
Now the Only this Much campaign, an alliance of conservation groups and marine scientists, has accused Molewa of buckling under pressure from mining interests by delaying or scaling down the declaration of new MPAs.
The alliance includes WILDTRUST, WWF South Africa, Ocean Unite, the Centre for Environmental Rights and the SA Association for Marine Biological Research.
In a letter to Molewa on September 6, Only this Much spokesperson Dr Andrew Venter said the only conclusion to be drawn from the two-and-a-half-year delay was that protection “has stalled due to offshore oil and gas and mineral interests”.
This has been partly confirmed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Mineral Resources, which said discussions on the new MPA plan were still under way between the two departments, the Petroleum Agency of SA and the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
The largest expansion plan involves increasing the size of the offshore marine protection zone alongside the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site in KwaZulu-Natal.
Venter said more than a decade had been spent designing the new MPA network and ensuring it was aligned with former president Jacob Zuma’s Operation Phakisa oceans economy project.
It had been designed to safeguard a wide variety of habitats, including coldwater corals, a fossilised yellow wood forest, canyons, reefs, mangroves, coastal wetlands, mud habitats, gravel habitats and canyons, along with the vital spawning, breeding and aggregation areas for a rich array of marine fauna.
“Apart from these vast conservation benefits, the value of these proposed marine protected areas to human wellbeing cannot be overstated.”
A technical report by Operation Phakisa said the current 0.4% level of protection compared poorly with an average 5.8% in other developing countries, said Venter, noting that SA is ranked 90th out of 130 developing nations in terms of protection of its mainland EEZ.
Venter said the formal public participation process ended on May 3 2016 but the process then stalled because of continued negotiations between officials of the environment and minerals departments.
“This has raised suspicions from the public and concerned stakeholders of lack of openness, transparency and accountability, and ‘closed-doors’ negotiations, outside of the timeframes and parameters of public participation and consultation with only one stakeholder.
“The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn, which the public and various stakeholders are increasingly raising in the media, is that the Operation Phakisa marine protected area network has stalled due to offshore petroleum (oil and gas) and mineral interests.”
Venter said the alliance was also “extremely concerned” about major regulatory roll-backs that could exempt offshore oil and gas ventures from making upfront financial provisions to cover liability for oil leaks and other environmental damage.
Responding, Environmental Affairs spokesman Zolile Nqayi said: “As departments we are trying to align objectives of individual activities within Operations Phakisa’s stated aim of protection of the environment and oil and gas exploration, for the benefit of all citizens in terms of job creation and wellness of the ocean environment.”
The Department of Mineral Resources said: “Discussions concerning the proposed MPAs are still in progress between the DMR, Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa), the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute.”
On whether it believed the current MPA network covering 0.4% of the sea was sufficient to protect biodiversity, fisheries and other marine resources, the department said such matters fell outside its expertise and knowledge.
“The primary mandate of the department and Pasa is to regulate exploration and development of oil and gas in South Africa. However, we have a responsibility to ensure that such resources are developed in a sustainable manner. Therefore, this will strike a balance between developmental and environmental needs.”