There is growing evidence that noise from seismic surveys conducted to locate offshore oil and gas deposits result in negative environmental impacts. Harmful effects can include tissue and hearing damage, interference with sounds used to detect prey or avoid predators, as well as behavioural changes (such as displacing some species from their feeding and breeding grounds). These harmful effects add to existing acoustic pollution of the oceans (for example, noise from shipping and use of sonars).

An increasing number of seismic surveys are being conducted in SA’s oceans as Operation Phakisa gains momentum. Initiated in 2014, Phakisa aims to unlock the economic potential of SA’s oceans, and a component of this is the promotion of offshore oil and gas exploration aimed at drilling 30 exploration wells over the next decade.

Seismic surveys forming part of offshore oil and gas reconnaissance operations, are not listed as an activity requiring environmental authorisation under SA’s National Environmental Management Act (Nema) and its environmental impact assessment (EIA) regulations. Recently, however, the minister of environmental affairs indicated that a process is underway to require environmental authorisation.

Until the minister does so, reconnaissance activities involving seismic surveys continue to be regulated by the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA). Recent experience has shown that this process is not as open and transparent as a National Environmental Management Act EIA process (for example. the reconnaissance permit is not made public, which makes appealing against the permit difficult), while the Petroleum Agency of SA (Pasa) is mandated to promote offshore oil and gas exploration, while also processing permit applications and making recommendations to the minister of mineral resources on permitting decisions (resulting in Pasa being both a "player and referee").

At a planning level, Phakisa identified the department of environmental affairs as the lead department to develop legislation supporting marine spatial planning, and a draft bill has been gazetted. This bill aims to manage conflicting and competing uses of ocean natural resources and systems, such as areas to be preserved as marine protected areas and areas to be used for offshore oil and gas activities. While more than 90% of SA’s exclusive economic zone has already been divided into licensing blocks that have been allocated to various oil and gas entities, declared marine protected areas make up only 0.4% of SA’s exclusive economic zone.

In addition to growing evidence of negative environmental impacts, seismic surveys are a precursor to the drilling of test and production wells for offshore oil and gas. Such wells pose a risk of significant socioeconomic effects should a worst-case scenario oil spill occur, as evidenced by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The use of fossil fuels for energy contributes significantly to global climate change, and the South African government’s policy to promote offshore oil and gas exploration and production sits uncomfortably with is commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Consistent with her duty to protect the environment, the minister of environmental affairs is urged to expedite the listing of offshore seismic surveys as an activity requiring environmental authorisation under the National Environmental Management Act, while also making good on SA’s international commitments by ensuring that marine protected areas making up at least 10% of our exclusive economic zone by 2020.

• Pole and Youens are environmental lawyers.