Shell has weekend to do seismic survey until court gives ruling

Wild Coast communities, organisations and individuals are asking the court sitting in Makhanda to urgently interdict the oil giant’s seismic survey.
Wild Coast communities, organisations and individuals are asking the court sitting in Makhanda to urgently interdict the oil giant’s seismic survey.
Image: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

The world’s biggest survey ship, the Amazon Warrior, has at least the weekend to continue its seismic blasting for Shell along the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast, before a decision is made on whether to interdict its activity.

Judge Gerald Bloem reserved judgment on Friday and said he would do his best to deliver it speedily.

Wild Coast communities, organisations and individuals are asking the court sitting in Makhanda to urgently interdict the oil giant’s seismic survey which they say is devastating to the marine environment as well as harmful to communities’ rights and reliance on the sea for sustenance, income and cultural practices.

Argument became heated on Friday over some of the issues, including whether “subjective cultural rights” could trump commercial interests in these circumstances as well as the irreparable damage experts say will be caused to the marine environment by seismic testing.

Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe was also roasted in court for suggesting that those communities along the Wild coast who were challenging Shell’s seismic survey had a colonial and racist agenda.

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, SC, who argued for the communities, said Mantashe’s comments were ignorant.

“To instead defend Shell — with its headquarters in England — is a grave insult.”

Ngcukaitobi dismissed Shell’s contention that his clients should first have appealed to Mantashe before resorting to court for an urgent interdict.

The minister had already firmly “nailed his colours to Shell’s mast”, and an internal appeal would have been a waste of time.

He argued that the seismic blasting activities undertaken by Shell were unconstitutional, illegal and invalid as the company lacked a proper environmental authorisation under the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) and had failed to properly consult affected communities along the Wild Coast.

He described the consultation carried out by Shell as a farcical sham and said it had deliberately excluded communities and individuals who relied on the coastline for sustenance, income and cultural rights.

He also slammed Shell for being “dismissive” about the cultural and spiritual importance of the sea to communities along the Wild Coast.

He said communities communed with their ancestors who dwelt in the sea and summoned them for advice.

“There is a genuine concern that the seismic blasting will upset the ancestors. Communities are disturbed the company did not see fit to consult them.”

He said Shell had also been dismissive about the raft of expert evidence produced to show the harm seismic surveying caused to the environment.

“They gloss over it. [Their response is]: ‘we want our oil’.”

Ngcukaitobi said in the interest of the rule of law, it would be better for Shell to wait for the court to pronounce on the legality of the exploration right before it proceeded with its survey.

Both advocate Adrian Friedman, for Shell, and advocate Olav Ronaasen, SC, for Mantashe argued that  the Environmental Management Programme report (EMPr) was an effective environmental authorisation issued under Nema.

Friedman argued that the harm of an interim interdict to Shell would be “nothing short of catastrophic”.

The financial harm —  amounting to at last a billion rand — would be immense.

It would effectively bring to an end any possibility of ever resuming the survey or taking advantage of any oil or gas findings it might have produced.

He dismissed that the surveying activity — which would take place at least 20km from the shore — could ever affect any communities living along the coastline.

He said the court would be recognising an “unprecedented form of harm” if it considered the subjective belief that the ancestors might take offence at an activity taking place more than 20km away.

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