Gwede Mantashe. Picture: AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN
Gwede Mantashe. Picture: AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Environmental activists are upping the ante in their battle to prevent exploration for oil and gas off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, from the south to the Mozambican border.

A study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has shown that SA has potential oil and gas reserves of  between 9-billion and 11-billion barrels respectively off its coast.

To realise that potential, and to help the economy reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the government’s Operation Phakisa has set a target of sinking 30 exploration wells offshore in the next ten years.

Drilling for oil exploration is expected to get under way early in 2019 after Thursday’s announcement by mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe in Cape Town that SA will relax a moratorium on gas and oil exploration licences implemented earlier in 2018. This will  allow exploration and production applications that are already in the system to be approved.

“This amendment will ensure that applications currently in our system are processed and granted,” Mantashe told an oil and gas industry meeting. “We can’t delay exploration because we want to accelerate investment.”

Sasol Africa and Eni Italian Oil Corporation intend to explore and drill for oil and gas along the coast of Port Shepstone, Richards Bay and Durban.

But environmentalists hope to halt the process through various means, including petitions, mass mobilisation and court processes.

Desmond de Sa, head of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance who is also the leading member of a consortium of environmental organisations opposed to the drilling off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, said it is unfortunate that the minister has given the go-ahead for offshore drilling for gas and oil without considering the objections of environmentalists and other stakeholders.

“This is unfortunate. Drilling will bring devastation to a range of people and stakeholders in our region. Certainly, the tourism sector would suffer, the ecosystem will die over the years and thousands of subsistence fishermen would lose their income.

“KwaZulu-Natal is renowned for its famous and beautiful beaches. However, healthy oceans are critically important to marine life and to coastal communities whose economies rely on tourism, fishing and recreational activities. Opening up new offshore areas to drilling risks permanent damage to our oceans and beaches,” he said.

De Sa said they will do everything possible, including taking the government to court, to halt the drilling for oil off the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

“We have briefed our lawyers and they are busy preparing legal papers that we will bring against the government and the oil companies,” he said.

Environmental organisations have begun mobilising communities under the banner of the Oceans Not Oil slogan. They were vocal two months ago when public hearings were held in Durban. They have also petitioned the Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa).

Several attempts to obtain comment from Lindiwe Mekwe, Pasa’s acting CEO, failed. 

Pasa has in the recent past acknowledged that a nationwide gas network is mooted in anticipation of the discoveries of gas and oil deposits deep under the seabed in SA’s exclusive economic zone.

These plans, which are part of Operation Phakisa, also include a gas pipeline linking wells in northern Mozambique and extending to Cape Town and the West Coast. Proponents say these plans will create thousands of much-needed jobs and economic growth.

Niall Kramer, CEO of the SA Oil and Gas Alliance, said Mantashe’s announcement is crucial as many local and international oil and gas companies are willing to invest billions to explore for oil and gas off the coast of SA.

He said it is still too early to say whether there are mineral deposits off the SA coast, but it will be determined after exploratory drills have commenced.

“I think minister Mantashe’s announcement of the relaxation of a moratorium on gas and oil exploration will set in motion some of these processes,” he said, adding that companies such as ExxonMobil, Total, Eni, Sasol, Canadian Natural Resources, OK Energy and Equano had received a “technical co-operation permit” but were hindered by the moratorium.

“SA needs to have a symmetrical and rational discussion on on-shore and offshore mineral exploration that will take into consideration the concerns of the environmentalists and affected communities on one side and the imperative for the extraction of natural mineral resources on the other,” Kramer said.