For the sake of our whales, stop the blastards, Mantashe told
The mineral resources minister has been urged to halt ocean sound-blast surveys used in the search for oil
The government has been urged to pull the plug on certain offshore oil and gas seismic surveys until it resolves a series of “legal contradictions and obstacles” that limit public scrutiny of ocean exploration that may harm whales and other sea creatures.
These surveys involve blasting soundwaves into the ocean to build up images of the ocean floor to help identify undersea reservoirs of buried oil and gas.
Lawyers acting for a national marine conservation alliance say they are worried that a series of amendments to mining and environmental laws has created legal uncertainties around whether exploration companies are required to assess the potential environmental impacts of seismic operations prior to reconnaissance surveys.
They have also raised concern that the department of mineral resources is restricting public access to certain information on oil and gas exploration projects.
“We assume that such exclusion is more a result of an administrative oversight than a strategic effort to prevent such information from being automatically available,“ Durban environmental attorneys Kirsten Youens and Adrian Pole wrote in a letter to mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe last month.
The attorneys are acting on behalf of the WILDTRUST conservation group, whose aims include greater protection of the marine environment.
Youens and Pole said there was mounting scientific evidence that offshore oil and gas surveys “impact negatively” on several marine species, including whales. This was a major concern, especially as some of the offshore petroleum exploration blocks adjoin, or overlap with, some of the 20 offshore areas proposed as Marine Protected Areas.
Two years ago, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife marine ecologist Jennifer Olbers said 10 whales and eight dolphins washed up on the KwaZulu-Natal coastline in 2016, the highest number of deaths recorded in recent years, although the verdict was still out on whether seismic surveys were the cause of the deaths.
However, Olbers noted that some of the dead whales and dolphins also had peculiar internal injuries indicating that they had risen to the surface at speed.
A review of impacts from airgun seismic surveys by Dr Lindy Weilgart of Dalhousie University in Canada concluded human-induced noise in the sea could be detected as far as 4,000km away from the source, and that at least 37 species of marine life were affected by seismic noise.
A separate review by Scotland’s University of St Andrews sea mammal researcher Dr Jonathan Gordon reported seismic airgun blasts could potentially lead to physical and physiological harm and behavioural disruption, and he recommended a precautionary approach pending further research.
In their letters to the minister, Youens and Pole said recent changes to legislation had led to legal contradictions, whereby there was uncertainty over the requirement for environmental approval for certain oil and gas seismic surveys in terms of the National Environmental Management Act or the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act.
This caused a situation where people who wanted to object to seismic surveys under reconnaissance permits were prejudiced from making timeous, informed and meaningful appeals.
“The regulatory uncertainty is further compounded by recent press statements indicating that the minister is considering withdrawing the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Bill 2013 and that ‘the particular needs of the petroleum sector ... could be dealt with in a dedicated, directly-targeted legislative framework for the sector’.”
Given the mounting scientific evidence that offshore oil and gas surveys impact negatively on the marine environment, and the current legal contradictions, they urged Mantashe to apply a cautious approach.
“The honourable minister is respectfully requested to consider exercising his powers ... to prohibit or restrict approval of offshore oil and gas reconnaissance permits involving seismic surveys until the legislative uncertainties, contradictions and procedural shortcoming have been addressed,” the lawyers said, further requesting a high-level meeting to resolve the matter.
In a second letter to the minister on October 18, the attorneys also voiced concern that the department of mineral resources had issued a notice last year that limited automatic public access to certain information about petroleum exploration rights.
“The information contained in these permits and rights ... is vitally important for public awareness and participation, and just administrative action,” they said, noting that such information should be automatically available to ensure openness, transparency and accountability.
In a related development in August, the department rejected a media request for information about a new mine prospecting application on the boundary of the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site.
The DMR replied: “You are advised to apply for access to this information in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act.”
Mantashe’s department has not responded to requests for comment.