Eastern Cape – It was a tale of David and the Goliath brothers. Activists, environmentalists and residents sought a review of the rights granted by the Mineral Resources and Energy Department of South Africa for Shell’s exploration on the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape.
From winning the battle in December 2021, temporarily halting the exploration, to winning the war on the 1st of September 2022. The result would see the oil giants seize their investigations below the seabed on the Wild Coast.
The court revoked the rights given to the oil companies by the Energy Department in 2014 and their renewed contract in 2021. Judging that they unlawfully obtained them, as they did not formally consult the fishing communities living along the coastline.
Dr Dick Forslund spoke to Salaamedia on the lack of consideration by Shell and the Energy Department when it came to the livelihoods and cultural practices of the surrounding community.
“It is ridiculous,” he said, that the only communication between the two parties consisted of a singular newspaper ad. “South Africa is [a] constitutional democracy, and they have to speak about the people concerned”.
Their failure to communicate their intentions tilted the court’s favour towards the plaintiffs. Other arguments were about the dangers seismic surveying would have on the ocean’s ecosystem and its adverse effects on agriculture due to its climate implications.
The argument put forth by the opposition is that seismic surveying is safe and it is a practice which takes place along the coasts of South Africa and the world.
On their website, Shell states that in their “experience with marine seismic surveying worldwide, combined with several decades of international scientific research. [The evidence found] suggests an extremely low likelihood of biologically significant harm to marine life from appropriately mitigated seismic surveying.”
”Low likelihood” indicates that they had found some damage to the ecosystem caused by the underwater explosions.
More significant marine life, such as fish, might not be in danger. However, when the strength of the soundwaves emitted by the air guns are nearly 220 dba. One can imagine how it might harm smaller organisms in the ocean that forms an intricate part of a larger ecosystem.
The Makhanda High Court slammed the Energy Department representatives as they failed to consider an essential aspect when making decisions based on the insufficient evidence —suggesting that caution was the correct action.
“There is a cautionary principle in the legislation of South Africa. If you are not sure if you will create a huge damage to the environment or marine life and… the effects that there’s no concluding evidence, there’s a debate then. The minister in question has to sort of take a decision on the side of caution. It is in the law,” says Dr Dick Forslund commentating on the High Court’s judgment.
What was the gain of the exploration?
The discovery of oil has been a fundamental social and economic driver in recent years, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
Gwede Mantashe, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, stated there was much to benefit from the exploration, especially if it struck black gold. The economic gain from the discovery would assist in job creation, social and economic development and lower oil prices that would counter inflation in the country. “A game changer,” he said, especially in a country needing stable revenue and rapid economic growth.
However, with the South African government’s disgusting reputation when it comes to partnerships with corporate conglomerates, concerning energy resources, the country’s citizens naturally suspect foul play.
There was a lingering fear amongst locals of the Wild Coast that Shell and the Energy Department were only thinking about their interests and profits. With no regard for the people, their livelihoods and the environment at large.
“There was no proof what kind of jobs or economic benefits this would provide to the country”, says Forslund on the arguments made by the plaintiffs.
Shell to appeal the verdict?
Considering the substantial amount of money spent acquiring the exploration rights by the oil companies and the implications it will have on shareholders, one can expect an appeal of the verdict. The verdict comes months after Shell was set to conduct their operations.
According to Forslund, Impact Africa and Shell are already feeling the brunt of the court’s decision to ban them from carrying out their exploration.
“The Shell shares fell close to two percent after the judgment and shares of the Impact Africa which was the South African company involved in this the partner of shell their shares fell with five percent”
A decline in market shares would warrant a response from the oil companies. With no statement released from both parties as yet, one can conclude that they are licking their wounds.