The West Coast’s Oil and Gas Frenzy

Rampant oil and gas projects on the Cape West Coast are posing as much of a threat as mining operations to the region’s environment and communities, writes Miles Masterson.

Image: Zbynek Burival


The recent proposal to station a gas Floating Storage and Regasification Unit (FSRU) in St Helena Bay has brought into sharp focus the growing threat of expanding oil and gas exploration, extraction and infrastructure development on the Cape West Coast.


Offshore oil and gas exploration, led by the South African Department of Mineral Resources, is one of six key areas of the government’s ‘Operation Phakisa’ Oceans Economy initiative, intended to “unlock the potential of South Africa’s oceans”.


According to the official website, “South Africa is surrounded by a vast ocean which has not fully taken advantage of the immense potential of this untapped resource. The oceans have the potential to contribute up to ZAR177 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP) and create just over one million jobs by 2033.”


Apart from oil and gas, the other five areas under the umbrella of Operation Phakisa – officially launched in 2014 – include Marine Transport and Manufacturing, Aquaculture, Marine Protection Services, Small Harbour Development and Coastal and Marine Tourism. Yet, touted as one of the most lucrative in terms of potential revenues, oil and gas development in South Africa unsurprisingly seems to be the main focus of Operation Phakisa of late.


“Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration has indicated that South Africa’s coast and adjoining waters have possible resources of approximately nine billion barrels of oil. This is equivalent to 40 years of South African oil consumption,” states the Operation Phakisa website. “We also have eleven billion barrels of oil equivalent of natural gas, which is equal to three hundred and seventy five years of South African gas consumption.”


Operation Phakisa has set a target of drilling 30 offshore exploration wells before 2030. As a result, the South African government has given the green light to a raft of oil and gas related projects across the country, from Richards Bay in KZN, to Coega in the Eastern Cape, to Port Nolloth on the Cape West Coast, many of them linked to its controversial ‘Karpowership’ project.


Heralded by its advocates as a solution to South Africa’s chronic power shortages, Karpowership is an electricity generation project, originating in Turkey, that uses natural gas to produce electricity in floating, ship-based power plants. But the controversial initiative has also been accused of inadequate environmental assessments and corrupt practices by its detractors.


Karpowership was recently granted an electricity generation license on the West Coast by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa), widely criticised by environmental organisations, including The Green Connection, a South African NGO dedicated to opposing oil gas exploration in the country, most pointedly through its ‘Who Stole our Oceans’ campaign. The recent Nersa ruling, which also covers licences for Coega and Richards Bay, now paves the way for further oil and gas activities planned for the West Coast.


“Nersa’s decision is like a kick in the teeth of the many small-scale fishing communities we work with, who have been fighting so hard to protect their livelihoods and the marine environment they depend on,” said The Green Connection’s Strategic Lead, Liziwe McDaid. “The power ship project could cause untold, lasting damage to the environment, due to noise and potential pollution in our oceans. This could have a devastating knock-on effect on the lives of the coastal communities who rely on the oceans to put food on the table.”


Social and Ecological Threats


While on the face of it ‘Operation Phakisa’ seems like a noble objective aimed at providing jobs and improving the lot of local communities, it is accused of lining government coffers and benefiting only a few business elites, and it is also not without its detractors. Chief among its most vocal critics is The Green Connection. “The West Coast of South Africa is being threatened by oil and gas interests, and will continue to be threatened, if the country persists in exploration of offshore oil and gas developments,” says the organisation.


“Operation Phakisa has prioritised the establishment of an offshore oil and gas industry. In doing so, it exposes the policy contradictions between the government’s international climate change commitments, against the backdrop of the ongoing loss of ocean biodiversity, and its continued pursuit of fossil fuels,” states The Green Connection. “Who Stole Our Oceans is alarmed by the manner in which the ocean has been divided up into blocks, which are being open for oil and gas extraction, rather than focusing on the stewardship of the ocean and the sustainable use of ocean resources.”


Image: Clyde Thomas


Despite the claims that an established offshore oil and gas industry in South Africa would bring significant economic developments, The Green Connection’s research finds that the growth of an oil and gas industry is unlikely to have positive long term benefits, either nationally or locally. “There is scant evidence from elsewhere in Africa that the exploitation of oil and gas resources naturally leads to improvements in the lives of those living and working in oil and gas rich areas. In fact, as our report will reveal, it normally leads to a wholesale deterioration in living conditions for the vast majority of citizens who live and work in such areas.


“Research into 12 Sub-Saharan African countries which had exploited oil and gas deposits between 2001 and 2020, indicates that in all 12 countries forecasted benefits were not met, especially those relating to government revenues. The economic outlook of these countries has changed following these disappointments, with many of them facing a debt-repayment crisis. Findings from the United States and Canada demonstrate that the fishing industry, both commercial and small-scale, tourism, and tourism-related industries such as accommodation, experience downturns with the commencement of oil and gas extraction.”


Gas developments on Cape the West Coast – several proposed drilling rigs, transportation ships, FSRUs and potential pipelines – are most likely to focus on conventional natural gas resources within the area of the Benguela upwelling. This is a vast zone in the Atlantic, adjacent to the South African and Namibian coast, where nutrient rich water from the south Atlantic approaches the surface and gives rise to prolific fishing grounds.


Offshore oil and gas drilling activities and possible spills in this environment will potentially have a direct impact upon the movement and behaviour of fish stocks and could directly impact access to traditional fishing areas by fishers.


“Additionally, we may see oil spills and increased noise pollution which will pollute the ocean and could definitely add to increased climate change impacts,” says The Green Connection,” which could also negatively impact the livelihoods of small scale fishers and the tourism industry. Apart from the negative knock-on effects, there also is a risk of health of individuals living in close proximity to oil and gas industrial sites through the contamination of air and water from gas flaring.”


Promoting green energy solutions as viable alternatives, The Green Connection has launched an outreach programme into coastal communities, and has conducted educational workshops and mentored community champions. Participants have engaged with their communities and started speaking to the media, government and EAPs. The participants have also successfully mobilized communities to become more active toward enhancing ocean protection.


The Green Connection is part of a network of organizations, including Protect The West Coast, opposing oil and gas development in the region, which arguably poses as much of a threat to the environment and people as mining. For their part, The Green Connection have sought to influence and have been involved in several submissions and legal processes against major oil and gas developments, helping local communities to have their voices heard.


But what else can ordinary people do to help organisations like Green Connection and Protect the West Coast fight against this threat? The Green Connection advises the following action:


  • Share and support each other in press releases, educational resources and reports.

  • Join in planned activism activities of other organisations demanding a just energy transition.

  • Become involved in EIAs and engage in community meetings, engage your local government to voice your opposition to oil and gas extraction.

  • Help in fighting legal cases through donating to organisations to help with expensive court bills.


Many thanks to The Green Connection for helping us compile this article.