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‘Victory for the planet’: South African court revokes Shell’s oil and gas exploration rights 

A giant puppet of a Snoek, a type of common local Mackeral, at a 2021 Cape Town protest against Shell seismic blasting
A giant puppet of a Snoek, a type of common local Mackeral, at a 2021 Cape Town protest against Shell seismic blasting   -   Copyright  RODGER BOSCH / AFP
By Charlotte Elton

A South African court has banned Shell from searching for fossil fuels along the country’s Wild Coast, a decision hailed by campaigners as a “massive victory” for the planet.

Last year, petroleum giant Shell announced that it would start searching for oil and gas reserves off the nation’s eastern coast. The government had granted the company exploration rights in 2014, renewing them in 2021.

Under the ruling, Shell could conduct underwater explosions to locate deep-sea oil and gas reserves.

But the plans met with fierce opposition on the ground, and activists took the matter to court.

On Thursday, the Eastern Cape high court revoked Shell’s exploration rights, ruling that they were granted illegally.

Sustaining the Wild Coast - one of the organisations that took the case to court - described the victory as “for the good of everyone.”

“Allowing Shell and the government to continue exploring for oil and gas and other fossil fuels would be detrimental to everybody’s lives and to the life of the planet,” said Sinegugu Zukulu, Wild Coast Programme Manager.

“Winning means a sustainable life on this planet.”

Greenpeace Africa hailed the win as a “massive victory for local communities”.

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A humpback whale surfaces in South Africacanva

What does seismic blasting do to marine life?

To look for oil and gas, fossil fuel giants use a technique known as ‘seismic blasting.’

By firing high-volume airguns at the seabed, companies can map the seafloor.

Shell planned to map more than 6,000 square kilometres of South African sea floor this way.

But the potential damage is extreme.

The underwater explosions generate loud shock wave emissions which penetrate through three km of water and 40 km into the Earth’s crust below the seabed.

The deafening blasts can “disturb, injure, and kill” marine life, US NGO The Centre for Biological Diversity warns.

“In marine mammals, the blasts - which reach more than 250 decibels and be heard for miles - can cause hearing loss, disturb essential behaviours like feeding and breeding, and mask communications between individual whales and dolphins,” they insist.

The Wild Coast is one of the world’s best destinations for whale-watching.

Southern right and humpback whales migrate to southern Africa’s warmer waters between June and December, to mate and rear calves. Pods of dolphins swim in the area year round.

Seismic blasting is a prerequisite for any oil and gas drilling, which has even nastier environmental consequences.

In addition to increasing emissions, the practice also carries the risk of oil spills.

By extension, the court’s decision rules out potential mining on the coast.

Why did Shell lose the ruling?

The applicants argued that Shell was granted exploration rights unlawfully.

They pointed out that there was no consultation with affected communities and that decision makers failed to consider potential harm to local fishing livelihood s and cultural and spiritual rights.

The decision also failed to consider the contribution of oil and gas exploitation to climate change, they argued.

The court found in favour of the applicants on all grounds.