Gas readings on the West Coast are now dangerous, according to its own social experts at the seismic mapping company

  • The British company Searcher Geodata is again trying to get permission for a 3D seismic survey off the west coast.
  • Searcher, and more recently Shell, have failed to obtain authorization for this first stage of exploration for oil and gas deposits.
  • Searcher’s own social experts say that currently no company has a “social license” for such crawling.
  • Until they make serious fence repairs, attempting such investigations could lead to violence.
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It is currently not possible for any company to safely map oil and gas deposits off the west coast, according to a new report on behalf of UK firm Searcher Geodata.

Communities are now so suspicious that no business has a “social license to operate” in the area, Equispectives consultants told Searcher in an expert report.

Attempting the kind of 3D seismic survey Searcher has in mind will likely lead to protests and may well lead to violence, both directed at the company and within communities that are divided over the economic risks and benefits that oil and gas production could bring.

First, says Equispectives, Searcher and peers such as Shell will need to mend barriers with coastal communities, including doing basic research on fish behavior. Only then would it perhaps be safe to put survey vessels out to sea.

The social impact assessment report is part of more than 550 pages of specialized reports published on Friday by Environmental Impact Management Services (EIMS), which manages an environmental clearance process for Searcher. This process is expected to see a series of public meetings, starting next week, in Cape Town, Vredenburg, Lamberts Bay, Hondeklipbaai and Port Nolloth.

Business representatives shouldn’t expect a warm welcome, the social impact report suggests, after discussions with affected communities since last month.

“Some communities are adamant that they would not allow gas or oil extraction in the area, and that includes collecting the required data from the ocean,” Equispectives said.

“Some members of the community have threatened violence against Searcher’s vessel. Others have threatened to take action against the seismic surveys, in any way they see fit. This is a very emotional issue for many people and which could escalate into social unrest. Related to this is the potential for conflict between community members who support the project and those who are against the project.”

In March, the Western Cape High Court prevented Searcher from carrying out a seismic surveyon the grounds that it had not sufficiently consulted the communities concerned.

The illiterate and the poor were excluded from consultation, the court said, while only the commercial fishing sector was deemed “worthy” of consultation.

In September, the Makhanda High Court overturned a decision that would have allowed Shell to conduct a seismic survey off the wild coast, also partly because of gaps in consultation.

It’s not about the survey, really

Now, on the west coast, objections have little to do with technical plans to tow eight kilometers of cables behind a vessel that emits seismic blasts in order to map the seabed hundreds of kilometers from shore. Some people “believe that seismic surveys are only a first step and that they will open the door to oil and gas exploration”, with the associated environmental objections. For others, “the heart of the problem is the impact on their indigenous and cultural rights, their customs and traditions and their livelihoods”.

Few seem to trust the government to manage the exploration and extraction process.

At the same time, coastal communities no longer “differentiate between different companies that request seismic surveys. They see a different face looming before them, sharing similar information, but never answering their questions,” the consultants explain.

These communities have organized lines of communication, note the social consultants, and support from advocacy groups that make them able to take legal action.

And they will not be pacified quickly or easily. Along with “meaningful consultation” and establishing a way to address community grievances on an ongoing basis, Searcher should support independent research into how fish such as snoek respond to seismic surveys, recommends Equispectives. In addition to this, the seismic prospecting industry as a whole must “engage in an awareness and education campaign”.

“From a social perspective, the project can only be recommended after meaningful consultation, local research, education and outreach in project-affected communities,” Searcher consultants found.

“At this point, communities feel they cannot make informed decisions. Although all legal procedures have been followed, the seismic survey industry is not keeping pace with the community, and for a long time term, it will hurt the industry.”

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