Picture: 123RF/SOFTLIGHT69
Picture: 123RF/SOFTLIGHT69

Eight years ago, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 people, pouring 5-million barrels of oil into the ocean and contaminating more than 1,700km of US coastal wetlands and beaches.

It was one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history.

In the following months, while oil continued to gush into the Gulf, I was tasked as then president Barack Obama’s director of energy and climate change policy with dealing with the aftermath.

I heard heart-breaking stories of communities and businesses suffering enormous and irreparable losses. I hope no other country ever has to endure what I witnessed that terrible summer, but history has a habit of repeating itself if its lessons are not heeded.

I served on the Global Ocean Commission, a panel of world leaders concerned about the future of oceans. At a meeting in Cape Town the group listened to South Africans’ concerns.

SA has vast expanses of precious marine ecosystems and its oceans provide food security and new jobs to a growing ecotourism sector.

The commission came to understand that there is strong support across the country for ocean protection. SA can become a beacon for sustainable development of its oceans but it should not let short-term greed overshadow its long-term protection goals.

Ocean-dependent industries

The health and livelihoods of the millions of South Africans who rely on fishing and other ocean-dependent industries will be affected by decisions taken by the government now.

Two years ago SA appeared to be on a fast track to expand ocean protection when the government announced it would create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs).

It was one of the first steps in an inspirational plan to unlock the economic potential of the ocean under Operation Phakisa.

These new MPAs would increase the proportion of SA’s ocean under protection tenfold, from the lamentable current level of less than 0.5% to about 5%. They would also put the country on track to achieving its existing international commitment of protecting 10% of the ocean by 2020. Why have these MPAs not materialised?

The answer seems to be connected to mounting pressures from the oil, gas and extractive mining sector. Leases covering 98% of SA’s waters have been issued to oil and gas companies. Seismic testing has already begun in some vulnerable marine areas. The expanse of this activity appears to conflict with Operation Phakisa’s stakeholder-supported approach and to be responsible for the delay in establishing the new MPAs.

My experience with the BP Deepwater disaster compels me to warn against the risks of offshore drilling. In the years following the Deepwater explosion studies revealed serious health problems and increased mortality in tuna, dolphins and turtles.

And it is not only major accidents that cause damage; thousands of smaller leaks happen every year, many of them unreported. Taking a precautionary approach and allowing time to assess all the risks is essential.

This caution is by no means exclusive to SA but extends to all governments facing these choices. Even the US is now eroding the additional protections and regulations introduced after the BP disaster.

Scientists, fishers, tourist businesses and coastal communities are all concerned about the expansion of offshore extraction. Government leaders, including Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, have championed the Paris Climate Agreement and other international environmental commitments. This leadership is jeopardised by the stalled plan to expand the MPA network and by granting such expansive rights to new oil and gas exploration.

Large-scale MPA expansion is a foundation for sustainable development in the oceans. SA can lead the continent. For inspiration, it can look at Chile, whose designation of new MPAs helped catalyse action in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American partners.

At a time of transition, SA’s new leadership faces many difficult decisions, but history provides important lessons.

The government can usher in a new era of marine protection to support a healthy economy and a secure future for its coastal communities. Dozens of communities along the US Gulf Coast will probably be rooting for SA’s success.

 •  Browner is a former US Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Obama presidential climate adviser.