Plans to prospect for gas and oil off KwaZulu-Natal's coast came under fire at public hearings last week. In Durban it got rowdy with people chanting, "Go back to Italy" and "No Oil or Gas". People who wanted to discuss the draft environmental impact assessment (EIA), commissioned by Eni, the Rome-based multinational, were frustrated.
Eni's gas and oil exploration chimes with government's National Development Plan, in particular Operation Phakisa, which aims to fast-track moves to tap the ocean's economic potential.
Operation Phakisa has put finding gas at the top of the agenda to diversify South Africa's energy mix. At present, coal provides more than two-thirds of the country's energy needs.
According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa has potential oil and gas reserves of about nine and 11 billion barrels respectively. To realise that potential, and to help the economy reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, Operation Phakisa has set a target of sinking 30 exploration wells in the next ten years.
A nationwide gas network has also been mooted in anticipation of the discoveries of gas and oil deposits deep under the seabed in South Africa' exclusive economic zone.
A gas pipeline, linking wells in northern Mozambique, extending to Cape Town and the West Coast is also envisaged.
Besides gas being cleaner than coal, job creation has been touted as one of the benefits of diversifying the energy mix by tapping oil and gas reserves.
However, environmentalists and marine scientists are concerned. Khalid Mather, a marine researcher, said that the planned exploitation of oil and gas reserves flies in the face of worldwide moves to combat climate change. This is in addition to the harmful impact of deep-sea drilling operations on the marine environment.
Khalid referred to a report released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report warned of the catastrophic effects of climate change if industry failed to aggressively reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and invest in renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. It also said fossil fuel assets would become stranded investments as the sector plunges on the markets.
Despite these warnings, South Africa, "which is Africa's number one carbon dioxide emitter and 13th in the world, is aggressively pursuing extraction of more fossil fuels," said Mather. "It just does not make sense, especially for the future."
Oceans not Oil co-founder and filmmaker Janet Solomon says the big irony is that the exploratory deep-sea drilling operations would also burn up vast amounts of fossil fuels, which were best left where they were - deep under the sea bed.
Solomon and Mather were among about 150 stakeholders who attended a meeting organised by Eni's environmental consultants, Environmental Resource Management (ERM), in Durban this week.
The meeting was called to discuss the findings of the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. It covers plans by Eni and Sasol to explore for gas and oil reserves by drilling up to six deep-water wells within a prospecting block extending from Richards Bay in the north to Port Shepstone in the south.
But the meeting descended into chaos. Activists from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance disrupted the proceedings, effectively preventing the consultants and Eni representatives from engaging with the audience.
At issue was ERM's format for the public engagement process. Instead of making a formal presentation on the draft EIA report, ERM put up posters displaying aspects of the exploration plan, with representatives and three Zulu translators on standby to respond to questions from individuals.
Solomon was not impressed. "To register our comments, we were given post-its to place alongside each poster, all of which were only in English. It was a farce," said Solomon. "There were also no places to sit."
Solomon said she and others, including Dr David Pearton, a senior scientist at the Oceanographic Research Institute, had come prepared to engage with ERM on specific issues arising from the draft EIA report.
Pearton argues that a large oil spill could certainly affect the entire coastline. He said, "I don't know how they have the gall to say that a large oil spill, in the middle of the fast-flowing Agulhas current, is going to head east. That is just embarrassing and unethical to say this."
Pearton also took issue with the report's finding that disposal of mud and cuttings from drilling at the seabed would only have "moderate" impact on deep-water corals and be "fully reversible".
He referred to toxic compounds (including mercury and cadmium) used in lubricants of drilling machines that would be absorbed in the food web. He said the specialist studies did not deal with this and the possibility that some impacts might not be reversible in "600 years".
Despite the disruptions, ERM representatives said they were satisfied with the large turnout at the Durban hearing and had captured a large number of comments and concerns as part of the public consultation process.
Eni's draft EIA report is available for public comment until 25 October.
Prepared for GroundUp by Roving Reporters. Thabiso Goba is a final year Durban University of Technology journalism student. This story forms part of an environmental journalism training programme supported by the Human Elephant Foundation.