24 Jul Carol Browner OPED South Africa
Eight years ago, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 people, pouring 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean and contaminating over 1,700 kilometres of America’s coastal wetlands and beaches. It was one of the worst environmental disasters in my country’s history.
In the weeks and months following, while oil continued to gush into the Gulf, I was tasked with dealing with the aftermath, as President Obama’s Director of Energy and Climate Change Policy. I heard heart-breaking stories of communities and businesses suffering enormous and irreparable losses. I hope no other country ever has to endure what I witnessed that terrible summer.
But history has a habit of repeating itself, if we do not heed its lessons.
I served on the Global Ocean Commission, a panel of world leaders concerned about the future of our planet’s oceans. The group hosted a meeting in Cape Town and listened to concerns of South Africans. We learned that South Africa is blessed with a remarkable coastline – spanning two oceans – with vast expanses of precious marine ecosystems. We also learned that your oceans provide food security and new jobs to a growing eco-tourism sector.
The Commission came to understand that there is strong support across the country for ocean protection. South Africa can become a beacon for sustainable development of its oceans. But, it should not let short-term greed overshadow its long-term protection goals. The health and livelihoods of the millions of South Africans who rely on fishing and other ocean-dependent industries will be impacted by decisions taken by the government now.
Two years ago, South Africa appeared to be on a fast track to expand ocean protection when the government announced it would create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs). It was one of the first steps in an inspirational plan to unlock the economic potential of the ocean under Operation Phakisa. These new MPAs would increase the proportion of South Africa’s ocean under protection tenfold, from the lamentable current level of less than 0.5 percent to about five percent. They would also put the country on track to achieving its existing international commitment of protecting 10% of the ocean by 2020.
So, what happened? Why have these MPAs not materialized? The answer seems to be connected to mounting pressures from the oil, gas and extractive mining sector. Leases covering more than 90 percent of South Africa’s waters have been issued to oil and gas companies. Seismic testing has already begun in some vulnerable marine areas. The expanse of this activity appears to conflict with the stakeholder-supported approach of Operation Phakisa and be responsible for the delay in establishing the new MPAs.
My experience with the BP Deepwater disaster compels me to warn against the risks of offshore drilling. In the years following the Deepwater explosion, studies revealed serious health problems and increased mortality in tuna, dolphins and turtles. And it is not only major accidents that cause damage; thousands of smaller leaks happen every year, many of them unreported. Taking a precautionary approach and allowing time to assess all the risks is essential.
This caution is by no means exclusive to South Africa but extends to all governments facing these choices. Even my own country is now eroding the additional protections and regulations introduced after the BP disaster.
Scientists, fishers, tourist businesses and coastal communities are all concerned about the expansion of offshore extraction. Government leaders, including the Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, have championed the Paris Climate Agreement and other international environmental commitments. This leadership is jeopardized by the stalled plan to expand the MPA network and grant such expansive rights to new oil and gas exploration.
Large-scale MPA expansion is a foundation for sustainable development in the oceans. South Africa can lead the continent. For inspiration, it can look at Chile, whose designation of new MPAs helped catalyse action in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American partners.
At a time of transition, South Africa’s new leadership faces many difficult decisions. History provides important lessons. The government can usher in a new era of marine protection to support a healthy economy and a secure future for its coastal communities. Dozens of communities along my nation’s Gulf Coast likely will be rooting for your success.
Written by Carol Browner, Former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and Obama Presidential Climate Advisor.