Royal Dutch Shell will move ahead with seismic tests to explore for oil in vital whale breeding grounds along South Africa’s eastern coastline after a court dismissed an 11th-hour legal challenge by environmental groups.
The judgment, by a South African high court, allows Shell to begin firing within days extremely loud sound waves through the relatively untouched marine environment of the Wild Coast, which is home to whales, dolphins and seals.
Campaigners filed an urgent legal challenge against the seismic survey, which was scheduled to begin on Wednesday, but the last-minute interdict was dismissed by a judge on Friday morning.
Green groups fear exploring for oil could disrupt the sea mammals’ habitat and damage the ecologically diverse and sensitive environment of the Wild Coast, which runs along the Eastern Cape province.
The oil company dropped plans to help develop the Cambo oilfield in the North Sea on Thursday after escalating criticism of the project, but has defended its plans for the South African coastline despite strong local opposition.
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Lawyers for the South African campaigners, from the law firm Cullinan & Associates, argued that Shell’s exploration campaign amounted to “unjust administrative action” because it was approved using an outdated approval process that had since been replaced by stronger environmental protections.
But the court found the applicants had failed to prove there was a reasonable apprehension of “irreparable harm” without an interdict against Shell’s plans, and found in favour of the oil firm because of the financial costs of a delay.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Shell is pleased with the court’s decision, which will help move this seismic survey forward.” The work is expected to begin within days.
After the court’s decision the campaigners behind the legal challenge – Border Deep Sea Angling Association, Kei Mouth ski boat club, Natural Justice and Greenpeace Africa – said their fight to safeguard the Wild Coast was “far from over”, and warned that a “nationwide resistance” against the Shell’s plans would continue.
Happy Khambule, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, said: “The decision to allow Shell to continue with its plans to destroy the Wild Coast is very disappointing. Not only will the blasting destroy precious biodiverse ecosystems, but it will also destroy the livelihoods of local communities, all in the name of profit.
“We will continue to support the nation-wide resistance against Shell and pursue the legal avenue to stop Shell, We must do everything we can to undo the destructive colonial legacy of extractivism, until we live in a world where people and the planet come before the profits of toxic fossil fuel companies.”
In a statement Shell added that it had “long experience in collecting offshore seismic data” and taken great care to prevent or minimise the potential impacts on fish, marine mammals and other wildlife.
“South Africa is highly reliant on energy imports for many of its energy needs. Should viable resources be found offshore, this could significantly contribute to the country’s energy security and the government’s economic development programmes,” it said.