Leaving Oil in the Soil

There’s no way around it: to solve the worsening climate crisis requires we must accept both that the vast majority of fossil fuels must now be left underground, and that through democratic planning, we must collectively reboot our energy, transport, agricultural, production, consumption and disposal systems so that by 2050 we experience good living with less than a quarter of our current levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s what science tells our species, and here in South Africa a punctuation mark was just provided by a near-disaster in Durban – host of the world climate summit, four months from now – during intense storms with six-meter waves last week. A decrepit 40-year old oil tanker, MT Phoenix, lost its anchor mooring on July 26 and was pushed to the rocky shoreline in Christmas Bay, 25km north of the city.

The shipwreck is in the heart of a beautiful albeit class-segregated tourist and retirement site, Durban’s North Coast, that just two weeks earlier held an Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world competition, Mr Price Pro. That event boasted some of the best waves ever seen in ASP history, said contestants.

But cold winter swells from marine hell reemerged just when MT Phoenix was being towed into Durban harbour for confiscation, having lost its engines a few hundred miles down the coast. According to Cathleen Jacka of the maritimematters.net website, the incident confounded the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), what “with hints at a deliberate beaching; the possibility of a mystery stowaway still hiding onboard; uncertainty as to the true identity of the owners and even that the vessel was scrapped in India last year.” A SAMSA official observed that the 15-member crew “seemed inexperienced in the basic actions required to stabilise the vessel’s position” and remarked, “It would not be the first time that an unscrupulous ship owner was prepared to sacrifice a vessel in attempt to realise the insured value.”

Except that there was apparently no insurance for the MT Phoenix, since Lloyds took it off the books late last year, and allegedly it was on its final trip, from West Africa to India’s ghastly ship breaking graveyard. The owner, Suhair Khan of Dubai, stopped taking calls, leaving South Africans to bear the risk of 400 tons of oil spilling if the ship broke on the rocks. Estimates of the heroic rescue operation’s cost to the taxpayer easily run into the millions of dollars, but thankfully the crew was saved and oil was laboriously pumped ashore.

Offshore drilling in the ‘remarkably stable’ (sic) Agulhas Current

However another potential oil disaster looms in this very location, thanks to South African government energy bureaucrats. On May 5, the Petroleum Agency of SA began authorizing seismic oil surveying by a dubious Singapore-registered company, Silver Wave Energy, in water depths ranging from 30 meters to two kilometers. By comparison, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the much calmer Gulf of Mexico drilled 1.5 km down to the seafloor surface.

Silver Wave Energy’s primary owner is Burmese businessman Min Min Aung, who is tight with the junta that still rules there, according to reliable reports. Exploitation of oil and gas in Burma’s Andaman Sea has long been controversial (my grandfather was deputy warden there during brutal colonial times), and when Unocal – now Chevron – built a pipeline to Thailand, it did such enormous damage to people and the environment that local villagers, supported by Earthrights International, successfully sued the firm for $30 million.

Since 2007 the Arakan islands on Burma’s Bay of Bengal coast have been the main site of intense conflict, as Jockai Khaing from Arakan Oil Watch told me last week, and again Aung is a key player. Silver Wave has also been exploring dubious extraction projects in Russia, Sudan, Guinea-Conakry, Indonesia and Iraq, but in spite of sanctions against Burma (supposedly supported by South Africa), Aung received PetroSA’s endorsement to explore 8000 square km stretching from Durban to SA’s main aluminum-smelting city, Richards Bay.

Silver Wave simultaneously announced a $100 million oil search in the fragile Hukaung Valley in northeastern Burma, and if the company carries out its initial plans, this will threaten local villagers as well as endangered tigers, Himalayan bears, elephants and leopards. Although the area contains the world’s largest tiger reserve, according to reporter Thomas Maung Shwe of Mizzima news service, “the Burmese regime has encouraged logging, gold mining, large scale farms and the building of factories inside.” As the scandal grew, Silver Wave denied what its own press release had announced, but conceded it would drill near the reserve.

A company this dastardly is a high risk, and to prove the point, Silver Wave’s environmental impact document includes a description of the notorious Agulhas Current, which begins at the Mozambique border: “Compared to other western boundary currents the Agulhas Current adjacent to southern Africa’s East Coast exhibits a remarkable stability.” Huh? In reality, the Natal Pulse races down the Agulhas a half-dozen times each year, pushing 20km per day. It is one reason Durban’s coastline hosts more than 50 major ship carcasses. Creating havoc further south on the Wild Coast, the Pulse contributes to the rouge waves that have sunk 1000 more vessels in what is considered one of the world’s most dangerous shipping corridors.

Susan Casey’s book The Wave pays Agulhas this respect: “Crude, diesel, jet fuel, liquefied natural gas: oil in all its forms was heartbreaking, infuriating and all-too-common sight in the ocean. Supertankers, behemoths that couldn’t make it through the Suez Canal, swung down from the Middle East, took their chances hopping a ride in the Agulhas, and met their share of disasters. Salvagers used every tool at their disposal to prevent the damaged tankers from gushing out their contents, especially in fragile near-shore environments, but sometimes the battle was lost.”

South Africa’s petrochem armpit

If, thankfully, the beaches at Christmas Bay were saved from a spill this week, others have not been so fortunate. Just offshore South Durban’s Cuttings Beach, a few kilometers from where I’m writing, we witnessed a significant 2004 oil spill of five tons at the Single Buoy Mooring, the 50-meter deep intake pump that feeds the refineries with 80 percent of SA’s crude oil imports. Onshore, corporate pollution standards are so lax that the rust-bucket structures regularly spring disastrous leaks and explode.

Daily, poisons are flared onto thousands of neighbouring residents. The Indian, coloured and African communities suffer the world’s highest-ever recorded asthma rate in a school (52 percent of kids), as Settlers Primary sits next to the country’s largest paper mill (Mondi) and between two refineries: one run by Engen, Chevron and Total; and the other, called Sapref, by BP, Shell and Thebe Investments. Sapref’s worst leak so far was 1.5 million liters into the Bluff Nature Reserve and adjoining residences in 2001.

Together these refineries can process 300,000 barrels of oil a day, more than any other single site in Africa aside from an Algerian mega-refinery. A new 705km pipeline from the Durban refineries to Johannesburg will double the existing pumping capacity, an invitation for much more damage here. Delayed two years, the government pipeline project’s cost overrun went from $1.4 billion announced in 2005 to $3.4 bn today. Our petrochemical armpit gets smellier, as soaring financial costs add to the social and environmental calamaties.

Amazonian oil soils our forest lungs

Because of flying so much, I am feeling an acute need to identify and contest the full petroleum commodity chain up to the point it not only poisons my South Durban neighbours but generates catastrophic climate change. And regrettably, this search must include Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador (and from last week Peru as well), for even South America’s most progressive governments are currently extracting and exporting as much oil and gas as they possibly can. We may even be recipients in South Africa, if government’s plans to build a massive $15 billion heavy oil refinery near Port Elizabeth come to fruition. A $300 million downpayment was announced in the last budget, and full capacity will be 400,000 barrels per day.

From where would this dirty crude come? Two weeks before he was booted from office in September 2008, disgraced SA president Thabo Mbeki signed a heavy oil deal with Hugo Chavez. It appeared a last-gasp effort by Mbeki to restore a shred of credibility with the core group to his left – the Congress of SA Trade Unions and SA Communist Party – who successfully conspired to replace him with their own candidate, Jacob Zuma, as ruling party leader nine months earlier. In those last moments of power, Mbeki fancifully claimed he wanted to pursue Bolivarian-type trade deals, and Chavez told Mbeki, “It is justice … it will be a wonderful day when the first Venezuelan tanker stops by to leave oil for South Africa.” The harsh reality is that the preferred refinery site, Port Elizabeth’s Coega, will probably retain its nickname, the “Ghost on the Coast”, and Durban will continue to suffer the bulk of oil imports, as BP now actively campaigns against a new state refinery.

Venezuelan dirty crude is akin to Canadian tar sands, and hopefully sense will prevail in Caracas. There is a fierce battle, however, for hearts and minds in both Bolivia – where movements fighting ‘extractivism’ have held demonstrations against the first indigenous president, Evo Morales, even at the same time his former UN ambassador Pablo Solon bravely led the world climate justice fight within the hopeless arena of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations – and Ecuador where Rafael Correa regularly speaks of replacing capitalism with socialism. Both have rising ‘buen vivir’ (good living) decolonial movements and even ‘rights of Mother Earth’ in their constitutions – so far untested.

In Quito and Neuva Rocafuerte deep in the Amazon last week, I witnessed the most advanced eco-social battle for a nation’s hearts-and-minds underway anywhere, with the extraordinary NGO Accion Ecologica insisting that Correa’s grudging government leaves the oil in Yasuni National Park’s soil. Because he was trained in neoclassical economics and hasn’t quite recovered, Correa favours selling Yasuni forests on the carbon markets, which progressive ecologists reject in principle.

Accion Ecologica assembled forty members of the civil society network Oilwatch – including four others from Africa led by Friends of the Earth International chairperson Nnimmo Bassey from the Niger Delta – first to witness the mess left by Chevron after a quarter century’s operations. Six months ago, local courts found the firm responsible for $8.6 billion in damages: cultural destruction including extinction of two indigenous nations, and water and soil pollution and deforestation in the earth’s greatest lung – but Chevron’s California headquarters refuses to cough up.

The really hopeful part of the visit, however, was Accion Ecologica’s proposal at Yasuni, on the Peruvian border, that $7-10 billion worth of oil in the block known as ITT not be drilled. Part of the North’s debt for overuse of the planet’s CO2 carrying capacity must be to compensate Ecuador’s people the $3.5 billion that they would otherwise earn from extracting the oil. Leaving it unexploited in the Amazon is the most reasonable way that industrial and post-industrial countries can make a downpayment on their climate debt.

If the UN’s Green Climate Fund design team, co-chaired by South African planning minister Trevor Manuel, were serious about spending its promised $100 billion a year by 2020, this project is where they would start, with an announcement on November 28 to put the Durban COP17 climate summit on the right footing.

Don’t count on it. Instead, as usual, civil society must push this argument, in the process insisting on leaving oil in the soil everywhere so that other tankers share what we pray will be the final fate of the wretched ship MT Phoenix: a graceful not rocky retirement.

Patrick Bond is with the UKZN Centre for Civil Society in Durban: http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: pbond@mail.ngo.za