South Africa: Eskom faces high court challenge to Richards Bay gas plant

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Friday, 11 March 2022 13:57

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

South African utility Eskom will need to go to court to defend its plans for a gas plant at Richards Bay, with environmental groups claiming that methane and greenhouse gas emissions from the project have not been fully assessed.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and GroundWork challenged the government’s authorisation of the planned 3000MW plant in April 2021. The organisations took the appeal to the Pretoria High Court after environment minister Barbara Creecy rejected their challenge.

The court has now decided to consider the case, marking the first time that a gas-to-power plant has been challenged in a South African court. Dates for the hearing are still to be announced, according to a statement from the Natural Justice. The campaigning group is giving legal support for the case by providing an attorney.

Eskom needs to find ways to replace and improve on a fleet of coal-fired power stations which for years have failed to ensure a reliable power supply. Proponents of natural gas argue that it presents a cleaner alternative to coal and oil, and will be needed to achieve energy transition. SDCEA and GroundWork say that alternatives to Richards Bay such as renewable energy have not been fully considered, and that the emissions caused by gas may be worse than from either coal or oil.

  • “The people in Richards Bay have never been consulted nor were they informed about the development of this gas power plant,” said SDCEA co-founder Des D’Sa.
  • “This development has failed by not taking the local population along with them.” D’Sa, who helped start the group in 1996, is a former winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
  • The company says that natural gas is part of its “Just Energy Transition” which will enable it to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Shale gas fears

South Africa’s courts have shown themselves willing to defy government wishes and block energy projects on grounds of lack of consultation. In December, the Grahamstown High Court told Royal Dutch Shell to cease seismic blasting along the Wild Coast, citing a lack of meaningful consultation with local indigenous peoples.

Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University in the US, has argued that the climate impacts of gas are greater than those of coal over a 20-year timeframe. Though gas emits less carbon dioxide at combustion than coal, its upstream greenhouse gas emissions damage the environment as it releases potent methane in leaks and venting throughout its lifecycle, Howarth’s research says.

  • Methane is emitted to the atmosphere whenever natural gas is extracted. Howarth estimates that on average around 2.8%-3.5% of conventional gas taken from the ground leaks into the atmosphere in the production stage.
  • It’s not known where the gas will come from to feed Richards Bay. Howarth writes that leading candidates include shale gas from the Karoo, or LNG which could come from shale reserves in the US, Australia, Angola, Algeria, or Namibia.
  • Shale likely emits more methane and other greenhouse gases than conventional gas production, Howarth says.
  • Each stage of the gas lifecycle releases methane, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, most of which were not accounted for in the consideration of the climate impacts of the Richards Bay project, according to Howarth’s research.

Bottom line

The Pretoria court’s decision will be fundamental to determining the nature of South Africa’s energy transition.

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