In South Africa, Shell can use seismic airgun after legal action dismissed

Shell planned a seismic survey in the waters of South Africa in search of oil and gas. Unsuccessfully so far, environmental and human rights organizations tried to stop the operation.

Shell offshore platform
Shell offshore platform in USA. A seismic survey is commonly used to find underwater natural resources | © Stuart Conway, Shell, 2018

On December 3, the Makhanda High Court in South Africa dismissed the request for the Royal Dutch Shell to hold off conducting seismic survey.

Shell is authorized to perform seismic surveys from a boat in order to search for oil and gas under the seabed. The maritime operation is to be done near South Africa’s Wild Coast in the east of the country. They planned to start on December 1 until February 2022.

But four organizations including Greenpeace have been trying to block the operations because of irreversible environmental damage in this biodiversity-rich area. At last minute, they filed a complaint for an urgent interim interdict.

Loud blasts to study the Earth’s composition

In order to find natural resources under the seabed, Shell would use seismic airgun blasting, a common but controversial technique used by energy companies. From vessels, they would send compressed air sound in the ocean in order to study the underground composition.

Energy from sound waves that is not absorbed by geological formations is reflected back to the surface. It is then captured by sensitive receivers which then analyze and identify the potential for hydrocarbons.

For Natural Justice, one of the organizations in the battle against Shell, air guns would fire loud shock wave emissions for months every 10 seconds through 6,011 square kilometers of ocean surface. The association claims it penetrates through 3 km of water and 40 km into the Earth’s crust below the seabed.

And the organizations consider the waves disrupt and make irreparable damage to marine life, from whales and dolphins to crabs and shellfish. This would also have an impact on fishing or touristic activities.

For Shell, “concerns usually relate to the exposure of dolphins, whales, turtles, diving birds or fish to underwater noise generated by a compressed air sound source“. And to answer the concerns, Shell says it operates outside the window period for migrating whales in South Africa and makes sure there is no cetacean activity for one hour before seismic activity can start in an area.

Not enough proof of irreparable damage from seismic survey

The applicants for the urgent interdict considered that Shell’s mitigating measures were wholly inadequate. The urgent request was supposed to block Shell until it a judicial review of Shell’s environmental authorization was complete, News24 reported.

But the High Court considered there was not enough information to rule there would be irreparable harm. As such, the judge excluded the possibility to halt seismic survey “pending final determination of a separate review application“. The organizations will discuss and decide whether they appeal the decision.

On Sunday, some protestors walked from the South Africa House in London to Trafalgar Square with the slogan “Stop punishing Africa“. Demonstrators condemned “unfair travel restrictions” applied to South Africa, asked for better access to vaccines and for the end of Shell seismic testing.

On December 6, the petition hosted on Greenpeace’s website gathered a little more than 43,000 signatures.

Update December 28, 2021: A different South African high court blocked Shell from conducting seismic testing offshore from the Wild Coast.

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