On 21 October 2019, environmental attorneys Adrian Pole and Kirsten Youens lodged a detailed appeal on behalf of WILDOCEANS (a programme of the WILDTRUST) with the Environment, Forestry and Fishery (DEFF) Minister Barbara Creecy, challenging an authorisation granted by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) to authorize foreign mining giants Eni and SASOL to drill six exploration oil wells at two deep sea locations in high current off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Relying heavily on the results of commissioned oil spill modelling, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) done by the oil company’s EIA consultants (ERM) argued that the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill should a wellhead blowout occur was unlikely and that impacts on South Africa’s ocean would be low should this occur.
Disturbed by the quality of the EIA, Dr Jean Harris (Executive Director of WILDOCEANS) obtained three international expert reviews of the EIA, including critique of the oil spill modelling and assessment of risks and impacts. These independent experts, in contrast to the EIA that informed the decision of DMR, caution that such deep-sea offshore oil exploration is a new frontier for the oil and gas industry, and that well-head blowout frequency is expected to be greater in deep high-current locations and very rapid responses to catastrophic events would be near impossible. Furthermore, they caution that the risk assessment by the EIA consultants significantly under-represents the likely negative environmental impacts. “This is particularly alarming given the Critical Biodiversity Areas and new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on the east coast of South Africa that are in the path of more realistic oil spill modelling scenarios, and damage to these areas would severely compromise biodiversity, fisheries and tourism,” said Harris.
Dr. Erik Cordes who specializes in deep sea science and co-leads the DOSI Oil and Gas Working Group, whose 45 scientific members have written a letter to the Minister urging a precautionary approach, stated in his expert report that ‘a large spill or blowout would have major consequences for the marine environment, from the shoreline to the deep sea’ and noted that the consultants for Eni-SASOL failed to consider important information about the behaviour of oil spilled from such depths, which have been gained over the past 10 years from the Deepwater Horizon incident. Prof Claire Paris, a biological oceanographer in Miami with extensive experience in oil spill modelling, also expressed surprise that the Eni-SASOL EIA oil spill modelling did not use this Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a relevant frame of reference, and considers the oil spill modelling dangerously presented by the Consultants to be ‘highly unrealistic with the predicted outcomes presented as a worst case scenario, actually being closer to a best case scenario.’ Prof Annalisa Bracco, a physical oceanographer from the Georgia Institute of Technology whose research has been instrumental in understanding oil and methane patterns following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, also raised major concerns regarding the realism and reliability of the modelling simulations used in the Eni-SASOL EIA. She highlights that outdated nature of the model and its application biases could impact hugely on the assessment of the oiling predictions and the impacts on the KZN shoreline.
In their appeal to the DEFF Minister to set aside the decision taken by DMR, WILDOCEANS contends that the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) prepared by Eni and SASOL’s consultants (EMR) is “fatally flawed and cannot serve as a lawful basis for a reasonable and rational environmental decision.” Grounds for this appeal that are put forward in the lengthy appeal document include that the public participation process was procedurally unfair, the EIA Oil Spill Model predictions are unrealistic, potential environmental impact is under-estimated, and there is no climate risk assessment.
The Appeals Directorate of DEFF have now given DMR and Eni and SASOL’s representatives until 11 November 2019 to respond to the all “grounds for appeal” submitted by 47 appellants, that have been collated into a 331 page document. The appellants include the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR). “Our initial objections to the EIA report have not been adequately addressed,” wrote Dr Sean Fennessy of the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI).
In considering this appeal, DEFF Minister Barbara Creecy, responsible for protecting the environment, may well feel caught between the drillers and the deep blue sea.