Work on a network of protected areas has stalled, and regulations have been relaxed — developments that aid oil and gas interests, and endanger the marine economy, writes Saul Roux
The process of declaring a network of 21 new marine protected areas in South Africa has stalled, endangering unique ecosystems and hampering the growth of SA’s marine economy.
On February 3 2016, the minister of environmental affairs published draft notices to declare 21 new marine protected areas, for which she was widely applauded.
This initiated a comprehensive public participation process, which ended on May 3 2016. But nothing has been said on the outcomes of the public participation process.
Just 0.4% of SA’s exclusive economic zone is formally protected. The 21 marine protected areas would ensure that more than 5% of our marine environment is properly protected and managed in an ecologically representative system of protected areas.
This would contribute to marine protection targets our government has committed to in both domestic policy and international instruments.
The benefits of SA’s proposed marine protected area network are unquestionable. The network would protect a representative set of ecosystem types and species, many of which are found only in South Africa.
Importantly, the network will bolster the natural capital that underpins South Africa’s rapidly growing marine economy, and support sectors that are major economic drivers, including fishing and tourism, and the jobs and livelihoods that these sectors sustain.
Finally, it will support the multiple ecosystem services that marine environments provide, such as food provision, climate regulation and recreation.
Yet the minister has still not declared the 21 protected areas. The question has to be asked whether this is due to offshore oil and gas and mineral interests.
More than 90% of SA’s exclusive economic zone has been leased for offshore oil and gas exploration and production. Despite the considerable environmental impacts (including impacts of seismic surveys, climate change impacts of petroleum production, and oil spills), Operation Phakisa outlines ambitions to produce 370,000 barrels of oil and gas a day.
The regulatory system has regressed, as we have witnessed the roll-back of several provisions that provide protections against the impacts of offshore oil and gas.
For instance, seismic surveys have recently been removed as a listed activity in the EIA regulations. Marine hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was recently removed from regulations on fracking. The timing of this coincided with an application by PetroSA to amend an environmental authorisation to allow for marine fracking in the Outeniqua Basin.
In April this year, the minister amended the Financial Provisioning Regulations, specifically for offshore oil and gas exploration or production rights holders, to extend the transitional period to comply with these regulations to February 19 2024.
These, and other major regulatory roll-backs, are intended to appease offshore oil and gas interests and fast-track petroleum development.
At the same time, there are increasing allegations in the media of corruption as well as severe mismanagement in some of these offshore oil and gas operations.
PetroSA’s mismanagement of Project Ikhwezi, for example, allegedly resulted in the parastatal losing R14.5bn.
Unless the minister pushes back against marine petroleum and mineral interests, we can expect a completely watered-down marine protected area network, if any, where proposed protected areas that coincide with prospective petroleum areas are cut back, reduced or completely removed from the proposed network.
Correspondingly, the vast potential benefits of the network will likewise be severely diminished.
• Roux is from the Centre for Environmental Rights.