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ARE EIA’S WORTH THE PAPER IT’S WRITTEN ON?

by Jan Arkert

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the purpose of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study. But for the benefit of the layperson, especially those who will be affected by Total’s (TEPSA) application to drill an additional 10 exploration wells off the Cape South Coast, let me clarify. An EIA can be defined as the study to predict the effect of a proposed activity/project on the environment. It can also be regarded as a tool to aid the decision-making process as it compares various alternatives for a project and seeks to identify the one which represents the best combination of economic and environmental costs and benefits.

So with this in mind, it should be of great concern to all interested parties that the noble concept of EIA’s has been reduced to nothing less than an elaborate box-ticking exercise. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Environmental Assessment Practitioners (EAPs) – who are supposed to provide an unbiased opinion on proposed activities – conduct EIA’s to satisfy the requirements of bureaucrats.

In my opinion, it is evident that despite South Africa’s sound legislation, EIA’s are being undermined by vested interests that look to reduce the process to a financially rewarding exercise in which the essence of social and environmental reflection has been forgotten. In my opinion the process of conducting EIA’s is rapidly deteriorating into a disgrace. The situation can only be remedied when EAP’s truly act independently and in environmental and social interests, and government departments qualified to vet the reports do so with the due diligence and sincerity that is deserved. 

Having spent a substantial portion of my career perusing and commenting on environmental impact reports, I have come to the position where I must ask if they have any real value.

Post 1994, South Africa’s environmental legislation was redrafted, and Section 24 of our constitution includes clauses to guarantee our environmental health. There is no doubt that our National Environmental Act (NEMA) and its many derivations are sound pieces of legislation, but like any law, it is only as effective as its application.

Currently I am a registered interested and affected party (IAP) in Total’s (TEPSA) application to drill an additional 10 exploration well off the Cape South Coast.  The public were initially given 30 days to review – to go through a document that was more than 250 pages in length (an attachment of approx.. 55mb), covering complex scientific and technical issues.

The period for comment was extended by an additional 30 days due to objections lodged by The Green Connection and other environmental NGO’s who opposed the poorly conducted public participation process during the CoVid-19 lockdown period. The public participation process, as far as I know, was conducted as a single webinar that excluded communities and individuals with no access to wi-fi or electronic media.

Public consultation was not conducted. And, I emphasize the word consultation. Affected people along the Cape south coast have not been adequately empowered to provide an informed decision about activities along the coast, which may have direct impact on their lives. Consultation is not about placing adverts in newspapers that few people read, a few radio advertisements or placing large verbose documents in libraries. It is not about a webinar in which questions could only be placed in writing with no opportunities to provide follow up comments when inadequate answers were provided. Consultation is face to face meetings and discussions in which all communities are informed and empowered to provide their opinion on the issues that may impact upon their current and future lives.

The final Scoping Report has now been submitted to the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (PASA), a government agency whose mandate is to promote exploration for onshore and offshore oil and gas resources and their optimal development on behalf of government. This is a great example of the fox guarding the hen house.

Be that as it may, diligently included in the final submission are comments received from IAP’s, by far the majority opposing the proposed off-shore oil and gas exploration. What struck me, as I went through the reply provided by the Environmental Assessment Practitioners (EAP), was the seemingly defensive tone as well as the number of replies that wish to assure us that TEPSA has the experience, or TEPSA will apply best industry practice or TEPSA motivated… I was not aware being a spokesman for the applicant’s abilities forms a part of the EAP’s scope of work.

This makes a complete mockery of the proudly presented declaration by the EAP that they have no vested interest in the outcome of the project – a standard declaration required in all these reports. Since when does a consultant, who is paid handsomely by the applicant, have no vested interest when his services are being paid for?

It is obvious, in my opinion that the EAP will do all in their power to ensure that they are re-appointed for the next phase of the project. They have a direct interest in the outcome of the project, their bottom line depends on it. So, once again economic considerations trump environmental protection and people’s livelihoods.