Oil spill disasters … are we prepared for the risks of deepwater drilling?

Oil spills – whether from bulk carriers, oil tankers or offshore oil rigs – are the inevitable consequence of government and corporate insistence on continuing with our reliance on lethal fossil fuels. Despite the huge devastation it has caused, the Mauritian oil spill is tiny in comparison to the many oil spill catastrophes over the past fifty plus years, and which are responsible for some of the worst environmental disasters ever caused by humans. They include: the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon blow-out and spill in the Gulf of Mexico; the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill; the Amoco Cadiz spill in 1978; the Torrey Canyon spill in 1967; and the Santa Barbara blow-out and spill in 1969.¹

However, instead of going all out to transition our economies to renewable forms of energy while creating green jobs via a ‘Green New Deal’, we are being dragged into a mad last grab for oil and gas by the fossil fuel industry which, as oil markets collapse² has turned its attention to Africa. Over the past decade, there have been substantial discoveries of oil and gas in the Indian Ocean – from South Africa to Somalia, with further exploration proposed off the west coast of Southern Africa.³ Right now, Total is preparing to drill ten wells off Mossel Bay (with an application pending for another ten), and the DeepSea Stavanger oil and gas drill rig having arrived in Mossel Bay on 21 August, ahead of its deployment to the Outeniqua Basin.⁴

Are we prepared for the risks of Deepwater drilling – an extreme method of oil and gas extraction in an area prone to severe weather and dangerous currents⁵ – and will Total be able to adequately mitigate the risk of a Deepwater Horizon type blow out? Deepwater Horizon occurred ten years ago in April this year. New technology is making ever deeper drilling possible but the risks are also increasing exponentially.⁶ With climate change, we can also expect a lot more extreme weather increasing the potential for accidents and hindering preventative action and cleanups. To make matters worse, the Covid-19 pandemic is being used as a pretext to ease environmental regulations, restrict meaningful public participation, and reduce transparency and accountability.⁷

Above: Learners from South Durban protest against Total’s plan to drill the Luiperd prospect in Block 11B/12B off the Mossel Bay coast

As a result, we have little idea of Total's Oil Spill Contingency Plan (it has not been made available) while their latest EIA modelling is fatally flawed in this regard. Surely the regulators need to postpone drilling until these deficiencies have been addressed? As it is, they had to abandon drilling the first well in 2014 because they failed to anticipate the strength of the Agulhas current, one of the fastest-flowing currents in the world.⁵ This failure does not exactly instill confidence in its ability to do things correctly this time around. We need the assurance of knowing exactly what provision is being made to deal with: a) the wells leaking, which they will do over time; b) when extraction ends, how the wells will be secured to ensure they do not pollute the environment; c) whether they will be rehabilitated, and if so, who will carry the costs?

Finally, in the event of a major industrial accident – such as the Deep Horizon spill and the current Mauritius bulk carrier spill – will adequate funds be available to deal with it rapidly and effectively, especially since investment in oil and gas is not a viable option for the future prospects of any country. Canada – which invested heavily in its oil sands – is now faced with Total writing off $9.3-billion (US$7 billion) worth of oil sands assets in Alberta and cancelling its membership of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).⁸ These oil reserves (with incredibly high production costs projected more than 20 years into the future) are now regarded as ‘stranded assets’.

What will happen to South Africa’s ‘stranded assets’ when we are inevitably forced to move away from fossil fuel extraction and how will local communities be compensated for loss of lives and livelihoods? Four years after the Deepwater Horizon spill, oil was still washing up on the beaches of Grand Isle, Louisiana and had ruined the local oyster fishing industry, an important source of income for the islanders.⁹ A typical pattern of corporate malfeasance and a reluctance to take responsibility is beginning to emerge in the Mauritian tragedy. This is not specifically related to the oil industry, but is familiar conduct in any dealings with corporations from oil & gas conglomerates to shipping and waste management companies. How much more will it be the case, when the oil companies are no longer making profits.  

A series of articles in Forbes has investigated and exposed just how serious the situation is. We simply can no longer allow corporations and politicians, working hand in glove, to take us down a road from which there is no return: “For too long, the global shipping industry has operated under the cover of darkness. With the fate of 150 million in the Red Sea dependent on the safe removal of oil from one vessel off the coast of Yemen, two national governments on the brink of collapsing in Lebanon and Mauritius over their handling of what started as shipping crises, and another major oil spill in an important national park, the shipping industry (and associated supporting industries such as marine insurance companies, oil companies, salvage operators, oil clean up specialists, and even the global shipping regulator, the IMO) have been shown to be out of touch with the direction of the world economy, global consciousness and a younger generation that is calling for cleaner, greener, safer transport options around the world. If these industries are unable to show the ambitious changes needed on their own, it appears that – from Lebanon and Mauritius – change may be imposed on them whether they like this or not.  It is the only moral response acceptable, given the scale of the ecological and human tragedy in each of the four regions that have been affected these past 2 months.” 

From: Oil spill August: What the major oil spills in Venezuela and Mauritius mean for the world 
By Nishan Degnarain (Ideas for Change with Dr. Sylvia Earle)


1. Biggest and Worst Oil Spills in World History ǀ What is an Oil Spill? 
2. Seven top oil firms downgrade assets by $87bn in nine months ǀ World’s Largest Offshore Rig Owner Files Bankruptcy 
3. Indian Ocean oil and gas: Africa’s next energy frontier 
4. A giant rig is heading for the ‘Luiperd’ – in a bet worth billions on a big SA gas find ǀ Rig platform vessel arrives in Mossel Bay for gas drilling expedition 
5. The Treacherous and Productive Seas of Southern Africa ǀ Agulhas Current 
6. Offshore drilling has dug itself a deeper hole since Deepwater Horizon 
7. Undemocratic push for expansion of petroleum oil and gas during lockdown – The virtual walk out! ǀ Public Participation Put on Mute – Total and SLR Alienate and Snuff out Communities' Voices In Public Participation Process 
8. Total writes off $9.3-billion in oil sands assets and cancels CAPP membership 
9. 4 Years after BP's Gulf Oil Spill, Compensation Battle Rages


Mauritius Oil Disaster – Greenpeace Open Letter: 26 August 2020
Sinking of the MV Wakashio wreck – Greenpeace open letter to Malta 
Dead whales wash ashore as Mauritius faces oil spill aftermath 
At least 40 dolphins die in area hit by Mauritius oil spill 
Who will pay for the Mauritius oil spill? 
Dramatic Photos Show Wakashio Being Deliberately Sunk As Mystery Continues Over Final Location 
Mauritius oil spill: Data shows ship deviated from shipping lane 
Mauritius oil spill: Locals scramble to contain environmental damage 
MV Wakashio oil spill 
Oil Spill August: What Two Major Oil Spills In Venezuela And Mauritius Now Mean For The World 
Oil spill in Venezuela coats stretch of nation’s Caribbean beach coastline 
Experts fear deserted oil tanker off Yemen could explode
Mauritius weeps as the island is – surrounded by oil 
Satellite images show oil spill disaster unfolding in Mauritius: 'We will never be able to recover' 
Thousands march in Mauritius over oil spill and dozens of dead dolphins 
Mauritius Scrambles to Counter Oil Spill From Grounded Ship