Tuesday, 7 December 2021

No 124 - Wild Coast Oil Exploration: Some seismic thoughts


Almost simultaneously, a British court prohibited Shell Oil from advancing their Camco development in the North Sea, while a South African court ruled that the same company may proceed with seismic shock exploration along the Wild Coast. The British decision seems aligned with the globally accelerating move away from fossil-fuel dependency and attendant environmental poisoning; the South African decision flies in the face of that more enlightened path. Both court proceedings were accompanied by vociferous street and online protests, in the South African case spearheaded by Oceans Not Oil. Like many others, I signed and shared their petition to halt seismic blasting, and like many others was dismayed when it failed.

I wasn’t surprised at the court decision, though. The whole process was approved back in 2013, and low-level seismic testing has been going on ever since, indeed at an “abnormally high level” (Russell). This latest surge of ‘activism’ is perhaps a classic case of too little, too late – though I guess there’s never a valid time not to be an activist. (It is a measure of the power of the multinational-government complex that ‘activist’ – i.e. someone who simply wants clean air, potable water, functional ecosystems, and uncontaminated food – has become equivalent to ‘villain’, even ‘terrorist’, punishable for temporarily blocking a pavement while the destroyers-in-chief rumble blithely on.) One of the court’s reasons for denying the application for an injunction was that Shell would lose money. Why anyone outside of Shell should care beats me, but it shows where the power lies.

Seismic exploration is certainly more prominent in the news than ever before, which is good. Many local papers also seemed warmly on the side of the protestors. But the issue is, to put it mildly, more complex than the overblown publicity on either side would have one believe. In an article in the Daily Friend, career contrarian and free-marketeer Ivo Vegter rated the anti-Shell movement’s chances as “nil”, and insinuated that few if any protestors had ever read a scientific article on seismic testing; he may be right, though it’s not obvious that he sampled all 160 000 petition signatories. (That he couldn’t get his fellow-journalist Mike Loewe’s name right doesn’t fill me with confidence about other of his ‘facts’.) I could niggle away at the details of Vegter’s piece, which is chock-full of its own simplifications, speculative asides, and distracting insinuations, but better to home in on the provocative questions he does raise. I am no more expert on the subject than he is, poorly qualified to judge whether this or that scientific study is valid. But when the petition came up I burrowed into the literature quite a bit, and have done some more since, and what follows are some amateur but hopefully stimulating thoughts. [Links to all sources at the end.]

It might help to think it through on three scales: close, intermediate, and global.

The closest range involves the present activity of seismic testing itself. One of the cornerstone objections to it is its potential damage to surrounding marine life. The stress is on potential, because the studies just don’t exist to make very secure predictions. Vegter claims that seismic testing has gone on elsewhere for decades without ever inducing ecosystemic collapse. Perhaps. (So has poaching rhino and abusing women.) Most objectors cite whale and dolphin strandings as evidence of seismic testing-induced disorientation, but our capacity to ascertain this is very limited. Studies are fairly plentiful to show that seismic blasts can damage the hearing of organisms from cetaceans through tuna and squid to crustaceans, and that they induce a variety of visible behavioural responses, from outright flight to disturbances in breeding and feeding regimens. Many if not most such effects seem to be ‘temporary’, but when testing goes on unremittingly for months, there’s no telling what ramifications might accrue. Some fish, for example, have been observed to dive deeper when testing occurs; if a particular shoal does that for weeks, impacts on birds like gannets which feed on them could be catastrophic. It takes only a few days to starve.

Two broad-ranging surveys of the science which I found especially rich and useful show that while the concerns are fundamentally valid, there are numerous caveats to consider. One survey, published in the Journal of Marine Pollution, was supported by the Australian Government, whose fossil-fuel policies are worse than abysmal, so perhaps one shouldn’t trust it absolutely; the second, conducted by David Russell for the Namibian fisheries industry, seems equally thorough despite its commercial angle, and it’s full of terrific technical detail. Just his conclusions are worth reading. Both surveys make many similar points. Their caveats include the following:

            1. There are various ways of conducting seismic tests of an ocean floor, 2D and 3D, each with varying impacts, frequencies, and intensities: “there is no such thing as a typical seismic survey” (Russell). Most discussions focus on airgun blasts, whose echoes off and through the underlying geology are picked up by a ‘streamer’ of sensors trailed behind the test ship. The effects vary hugely according to ocean currents, depth, hardness or softness of the floor, and life-forms’ proximity. Only at very close range – a few metres, it seems – might a creature actually die from the blast as such. Beyond that, impacts become extremely difficult to measure.

            2. A majority of the studies have been conducted in laboratories and tanks, a very different proposition to the turbulent environs of a living ocean. And almost all pick out an individual species to study, and only in close proximity to an airgun blast. So you might be able to determine with great precision what damage is done to a certain fish’s otolith ear-part in controlled conditions, but it’s less easy to measure the results in real-world environs, and dangerous to generalise. If purely physiological consequences are hard to predict, how much more so complex behavioural changes. Cascade effects must inevitably occur, but in practice few have tried to track even the most circumscribed threads in such infinite complexities.

            3. Different sea creatures ‘hear’ differently; not all have ears like mammals, but altogether other organs and equipment, from cilia and swim-bladders to pressure-sensitive skins, whose parameters we don’t even know how to monitor yet. Vegter notes correctly that other sounds in the ocean reach decibel levels equivalent to airgun blasts, but decibels (already a relative rather than an absolute measure), is only one crude approximation to the complexity of hearing; frequency, intensity, duration, pulse effects, pressure can all play a role. 

David Russell summarises:

There is very little evidence of direct tissue damage caused by seismic surveys. This can be partly attributed to the standard procedure of gradually ramping up the sound, and the constantly moving vessel, both of which tend to make the appearance of airgun noise be gradual enough to allow animals to avoid intense exposure. It is also clear that we have virtually no direct observations about the short or long-term physiological effects on wild creatures, since they cannot be examined.

Now, the defenders of seismic exploration (à la cigarette and opioid manufacturers and climate change denialists) will pounce all over these various uncertainties to suggest, essentially, that there isn’t a problem at all. It’s therefore fine just to carry on. Nothing is more revealing than the statements of the oil industry itself – and what they obscure or omit. It’s quite heavy going, reading through and behind the self-congratulatory slurry of business-speak that weighs down the web pages of PGS, a company that has been conducting seismic surveys off our coast for some years. Some things seem clear. a) They are happy to publicise their robust, not to say mind-boggling, profit margins. Good on yer, mate. b) They acknowledge that there might be adverse effects on marine life, but assert that their mitigation strategies are adequate. These include “trained monitors” aboard the survey vessel who will halt proceedings if any mammals are spotted nearby (good luck detecting all of them in a cubic kilometre of turbid sea, not to mention equally vulnerable octopi, turtles, larvae, corals, crabs, etc etc etc), and “exclusion buffers” around our several Marine Protected Areas. In both instances, while it remains uncertain what blast effects are beyond very close proximity, it is incontrovertible that they are audible for tens, if not hundreds, of kilometres, depending on conditions. Such buffers are illusory. Moreover, the company avers that everything is conducted within the relevant laws, safety requirements, Environmental Impact Assessments, and so on. Which may be true – but this seems to me only to reveal how feeble, how unhealthily pliant to the fossil-fuel business the regulations themselves are. The studied marginalisation of the Ministry of Environment on this issue is a local example; but even internationally the laws, whether in or out of sovereign waters, are muddled and unenforceable, and the most relevant international bodies, such as the Fisheries Commission and UNEP, are effectively toothless.

We are already spilling over into medium- and long-range considerations. Which is to say: they can only be artificially separated. For the moment, I want only to reverse the question, to ask: Are seismic blasts good for the marine ecosystem? All the uncertainties notwithstanding, there is only one possible answer: No.

Here we can think towards the next level. The intermediate term, which is to say the next decade or two, is fraught with potentially far greater problems. Assuming that the suspected millions of barrels of crude oil (read, poison) are discovered and extracted, we’ll be faced with the usual slew of unsightly rigs, constant ship traffic, flaring, almost inevitable spills, and leaking pipelines. The oil and gas companies provide not inconsiderable justifications, of course. These are primarily the provision of desperately needed jobs (both in the immediate infrastructure and in downstream ancillary industries), and the national localisation of fuel production (read, refined poisons). True to a point, though such assurances by multinationals have a fulfilment history that is patchy at best. Sure, the associated financial-commercial ‘ecosystem’ is almost as complex as the natural one, and it will be difficult to unravel. We are in a prickly double-bind, make no mistake. But major reformatory steps are within our capacities. Unlike dolphins and plankton, we have an array of choices. And this is what always gets me: with all our human ingenuity, are we really incapable of creating other kinds of jobs, redirecting engineers and financiers, shifting communities and labour to engage in cleaner sources of more justly distributed wealth? We could (we do it all the time, actually), but in this case the power-brokers resist breaking the inertia, even if it is crystal clear that fossil fuel-based (read, poison-powered) industrial expansion at the present rate is a recipe for environmental catastrophe.

At the broadest, most far-reaching scale, then – impacts on global climate and environmental health over the next century or more, say – the oil industry largely fails to think at all. Or worse, knows damn well but covers it up. PGS’s website acknowledges climate change as a concern, but confines itself to avowed mitigation measures within its own operations. Whatever those mitigations may be, they are not not adding to CO2 emissions, oceanic disturbances, extinction rates, and poisons production. It’s weird: do these people not have children and grandchildren to whom they would like to bequeath a healthier world? Do they not care? Oh ja, I forgot, humans have a seriously chequered and well-attested history of not caring. (Ask any refugee on the Belarus border.)

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate that many like me have benefited, directly and indirectly, from the vast array of technologies spawned by fossil-fuel power, from the joys of travel to the hygienics of plastic, from my oil paints to the refined steels of the medical equipment which has literally saved my life. (Or at least extended it a bit.) I would not have wanted to live in any other era (though a billion or two other folk may not have benefitted so much.) Like Macbeth in blood, we are stepped so far in oil that it’s hard to see ways out. Alas, even in the most propitious of futures, our Civilisation of Eternal Growth is doomed to use these fuels a bit longer. But it’s also now abundantly clear that we must collectively turn a corner, or we will literally weather a very terrible time. Ceasing further exploration would be a big step forward. Searching manically for yet more of the same, in one of the world’s shrinking still-beautiful and biodiverse regions nogal, is surely a peculiarly blinkered kind of madness.