South Africa: Shell faces legal challenge to Wild Coast seismic testing plans

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Tuesday, 30 November 2021 13:17

REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to start seismic testing for oil and gas along South Africa’s Wild Coast face uncertainty after four environmental and human rights organisations filed an interdict aimed at stopping the exploration.

The interim interdict, prepared by environmental law firm Cullinan & Associates, has been filed with the Eastern Cape Division of the Grahamstown High Court. The court will consider the application on Dec 1 in a virtual hearing.

Shell is under legal and investor pressure to align its strategy with the Paris climate accords. In May, a court in The Hague ordered Shell to reduce its worldwide CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 versus 2019, a ruling which the company is appealing. Shell says that its oil production peaked in 2019 and its output will decline by 1-2% a year, including divestments, until 2030.

The interdict was filed by Natural Justice, Greenpeace Africa, the Border Deep Sea Angling Association and the Kei Mouth Ski Boat Club. According to Natural Justice, starting the seismic exploration is unlawful until Shell has applied for and obtained, the necessary environmental authorisation in terms of South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).

  • Natural Justice also argues that the decision to allow the exploration “amounts to unjust administrative action” since interested parties were not informed of the exploration right or given a chance to appeal it.
  • The public were also not notified of two applications made to renew the exploration right, Natural Justice adds.
  • The decision to allow the drilling “flies in the face of the government’s responsibility to protect and safeguard human rights and the environment,” says Pooven Moodley, executive director of Natural Justice.
  • It also undermines the South African government’s obligation under the Paris Climate Agreement to mitigate climate change and contradicts commitments made at the COP26 in Glasgow, he adds.

Company responds

The survey covers an area of about 6,000 km2 located roughly between Port St Johns and Morgans Bay. Shell bought a 50% stake in the Wild Coast venture in November 2020. The other 50% is held by Impact Africa.

Shearwater Geo-Services has been appointed by Shell to carry out the survey. The arrival of the ship that would be used for the work, the Amazon Warrior, drew protests when it arrived at Cape Town harbour on 21 November.

The interdict argues that the seismic exploration would involve the use of airguns which would send loud shock wave emissions that would disturb and destroy marine life. Seismic surveys would have a negative impact on tourism and have been linked to reduced catch rates for commercial fishing, it adds.

Shell told The Africa Report it has noted the application and intends to respond.

  • “We are committed to safety and compliance, and have met all the obligations of the regulations,” a spokesperson said.
  • The company applies “stringent controls and international best practice guidelines to our operations. . . South Africa has already had many  similar surveys safely completed off our coastline by Shell and other operators.”
  • The company adds that it has completed all necessary stakeholder engagement related to the planned survey.

Bottom line

Shell is likely to continue to face legal challenges for as long as it keeps looking for new oil.

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