ON THE LAST DAY OF FEBRUARY, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their latest report. Previous versions have warned of impending climate chaos. The current report rings the death knell for people and planet. Governments and scientists agree that any further warming will push us beyond tipping points of a habitable planet. Yet oil and gas oligarchs and their captured state cronies remain intent as ever to secure profits by locking our continent into fossil fuel dependency.
Climate science is clear: oil and gas fuel disaster
The IPCC confirms that if we miss the 1.5 degree warming target, overshooting even slightly, the world will not be able to adapt to climate change. The result will be increasing disasters, loss and damage. And still, the IPCC report is a negotiated document, meaning the summary of these findings are downplayed and in fact a dilution of the real projected impacts. Most African countries have contributed the least to this global emergency yet are already experiencing widespread loss and damage from climate change. Southern Africa is regularly facing climate disasters – cyclones, flooding and be increasing disasters, loss and damage. And still, the IPCC report is a negotiated document, meaning the summary of these findings are downplayed and in fact a dilution of the real projected impacts.
Most African countries have contributed the least to this global emergency yet are already experiencing widespread loss and damage from climate change. Southern Africa is regularly facing climate disasters – cyclones, flooding and droughts, causing loss of lives, negative impacts on human health, water scarcity, reduced food security and biodiversity loss. Even if the world were to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees (very unlikely as the IPCC warns) Southern Africa is still warming at twice the global rate. That means we are already locked into a disastrous future, beyond all tipping points, and beyond the point at which we can adapt.
What the IPCC confirms is that fossil fuels and their profiteers caused this crisis and will only accelerate an irreversible overshoot beyond 1.5 C, with new projects being approved and expanded across the globe.
Gas is framed as a cleaner fossil fuel than coal. However, research shows that when the entire lifecycle of gas is taken into account, it’s only marginally less damaging to the climate than coal. Moreover, natural gas is mostly comprised of methane, a strong greenhouse gas that is much more harmful to the climate than carbon. Expansion of oil and gas is not only incompatible with limiting global warming and mitigating climate change; it also undercuts the financial and political will for a just energy transition and investment in an equitable and renewable energy system.
To hell with Shell
There was a wave of protests across South Africa, with solidarity marches across the globe, to stop Shell’s seismic blasting of the Wild Coast in December 2021. On 28th December Judge Gerald Bloem ruled in favour of local Wild Coast communities. Shell was interdicted from continuing surveys used by mining companies to find and estimate the size of offshore oil and gas reserves. Judge Bloem said that Shell was under a duty to meaningfully consult with the communities and individuals who would be impacted by the seismic survey. Based on the evidence provided, Shell failed to do so in the case of the communities which hold customary rights, including fishing rights.
The Judge found that the exploration right was unlawful and invalid; it was awarded on the basis of a substantially flawed consultation process. He was also satisfied that the applicants had established a reasonable apprehension of irreparable harm to marine life, and to the livelihoods of the fishers, as well as their cultural and spiritual heritage.
On 17th February, Judge Bloem dismissed Shell and Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe’s application for leave to appeal the December ruling. He upheld the interdict pending a hearing – set down for 30th May 2022 – that will challenge the oil company’s exploration right.
Legal action across the coast
In early February 2022, local fishing communities in the Western Cape won another urgent interdict stopping UK- owned Searcher Geodata from proceeding with a planned seismic survey for gas off the West Coast. Applicants and attorneys argued the company had failed to apply for environmental authorisation and neglected to consult with local communities. In another recent case, French exploration company CGG delayed a seismic survey for gas after Natural Justice and other interested parties submitted comments on the Draft Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for the proposed seismic survey of the coastline of Algoa Bay. These comments highlighted, among other issues, the Environmental Assessment Practitioner’s failure to consult key stakeholders, including small-scale fishers and indigenous and local communities.
In August 2019, Sasol and the Italian oil giant Eni were granted environmental authorisation to drill for hydrocarbons near to seven marine protected areas along the coast of KZN. On 15th June 2021, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) delivered a 600 paragraph founding affidavit to the North Gauteng High Court. On 25th February this year, Eni withdrew their opposition to the case after Natural Justice and SDCEA filed a supplementary affidavit. In the affidavit, they challenged the environmental authorisation on several grounds including failure to consider climate change impacts, irreparable harm to biodiversity and destruction of intangible heritage resources associated with the coastal environment.
Finally, represented by environmental law specialists, Cullinan and Associates, and supported by Natural Justice, SDCEA and groundWork will go to the Pretoria high court later this year to hear the Richards Bay Gas Plant matter. This will be the first court case in South Africa challenging the environmental authorisation of a gas power plant; in this case it’s Eskom’s 3000MW combined cycle power plant. This landmark litigation raises specific concerns about an inadequate assessment of climate change impacts, and alternatives to this project, including renewable energy.
In bed with oil and gas
During the Shell interdict hearing on 17th December 2021, Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, representing the Wild Coast Communities, slammed the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy saying:
“Mantashe has thrown his weight behind Shell, accusing communities I represent of colonialism and apartheid. That he can brandish them in defence of a Dutch company headquartered in England, is a grave insult. My clients cannot go to the regulator because the regulator is sleeping in the same bed as Shell. Instead of regulating them, he has taken their side.”
During the same month, it surfaced that the ANC received a R15 million donation from the Shell-linked Batho Batho Trust. This trust holds about 47% of investment group, Thebe, which has a 28% stake in Shell’s downstream business in South Africa.
It isn’t any wonder then that Mantashe has accused local communities, environmental defenders and lawyers of “killing investment” by launching “unrelenting attacks” on the oil and gas development: “We chased Shell here and they went to Namibia and discovered oil; we chased Eni in KZN and they went to Côte d’Ivoire and discovered huge coal deposits.”
On 14th December 2021, just before Shell was interdicted, Mantashe’s ministry released a Gas Master Plan (GMP) which was framed as a baseline report for the natural gas sector in South Africa. amaBhungane established that the document “reads more like a pitch from the gas industry” because it was drafted by EPCM Holdings, commissioned by iGas – the state-owned gas development company – in 2019.
According to analysis by Just Share, the GMP not only quotes projections made by the gas industry (including BP and Sasol), it also echoes the DMREs position that “Compliance with environmental laws and processes should not be at the expense of a country’s economic growth.” It is unsurprising then that the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) has since proposed amendments to the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), which, Natural Justice argues, will frustrate rather than encourage public participation. They also discourage appeals and undermine the principle of free prior and informed consent.
Against this backdrop, the recent tabling of the inadequate Climate Change Bill, seems more like a greenwashing attempt to cover up for government’s intent to lock in oil and gas dependency, rather than enabling meaningful action on climate change mitigation and adaptation, and protecting our human and environmental rights.
Greenwashing and corporate power
These developments come as no surprise when we consider the increasing “multistakeholderism” pushed within international human rights and development spaces. This combines with the growing corporate capture of multilateral processes, most notably within the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which took place in Glasgow last year. At COP26, there were more delegates representing fossil fuel companies than there were national delegates representing countries. South Africa’s pavilion at COP26, hosted by the DFFE, was co-sponsored by Exxaro and Sasol.
Oil companies have been part of global climate change processes since they began in the 1980s. They have spent the last 40 years actively undermining the science, promoting denialism and greenwashing false solutions. The latest IPCC report finally acknowledges that misinformation has been the industry’s sole contribution to the climate space thus far. Ironically the next IPCC report due to be published in April was reviewed by a Chevron staffer. Thankfully, environmental NGOs are suing oil and gas companies for greenwashing fossil gas and biofuels.
Money is power
During the interdict hearing last year, Shell’s senior counsel argued that the interdict would be “catastrophic” for the company since it stood to lose hundreds of millions of rands. In 2021, Shell’s adjusted earnings rose to $19.3 billion, from $4.8 billion in 2020 when Covid-19 hit oil demand.
The oil industry has far-reaching influence over states’ policy and fiscal space nationally, globally and within multilateral spaces. This is a result of their unconscionable profits and vast investment by financiers and banks, including our own.
According to a new report by BankTrack, between 2016 (following the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement) and last year, public and private financial institutions spent at least $132 billion on just under 1,000 gas, oil and coal projects in Africa. The vast majority of this finance came from financial institutions based outside of the continent.
But the total finance provided by South African financial institutions to fossil fuel projects and companies during the same period amounts to $8.4-billion. Standard Bank is the largest South African fossil fuel financier and is in the global top 10 financial institutions financing fossil fuel projects in Africa.
Standard Bank is also the only South African Bank that is still considering financing the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). This project will see Total and China National Offshore Oil Corporation build the world’s biggest heated oil pipeline, running through Tanzania and Uganda. In November 2020, Natural Justice, together with four civil society organisations from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, filed a court case at the East African Court of Justice.
Our struggle for a just transition, climate justice and ultimately self-determination, demands not only consistent and collective resistance.
It also demands clarity about the insidiousness of the “oil-garchy”, crippling any efforts to decarbonise, cut emissions and mitigate climate change. The next decade is critical – our existence is literally at stake. Activists, defenders and litigators aren’t waiting around for climate change to worsen, nor waiting for those who broke the system to fix it. As we’re seeing, people are rising up, along our shores, across the globe and in court, holding the perpetrators and perpetuators of climate chaos to account.
If we want to secure a liveable future and avert unparalleled human suffering and ecological disaster, we have no choice but to dismantle the fossil fuel industry and close the door on oil and gas. We also have to demand debt free climate finance and reparations from the Global North and their oil-garchs. They continue to profit from extraction and destruction which is externalised upon indigenous peoples and local communities in and from the Global South.
Collectively resisting oil and gas by advancing ecological and economic alternatives that put care for people and planet first is not only urgent for survival. It is also critical to our anti-capitalist, feminist, decolonial, and anti-imperialist agenda. The seas are rising and so must we!