Gas could endanger the Garden Route

Hikers on a trail along the pristine beach outside Vleesbaai, which is still threatened by the LNG project.

A new offshore facility for importing liquefied natural gas on the Garden Route is said to be critical to supplying South Africa’s fuel and electricity needs. But the proposed plan could come at an unacceptable cost to the region’s tourism and environment.

Vleesbaai, just west of Mossel Bay, is a pristine  bay visited by whales and dolphins, hikers and fishers. Residential developments have solar panels and fynbos gardens; the long golden beach is strewn with middens of ancient hunter-gatherers.

Five kilometres inland is PetroSA’s gas-to-liquids (GTL) facility. It produces about 10 per cent of South Africa’s transportation fuel, as well as fuel for Eskom’s neighbouring Gourikwa Power Station. Gas is sourced from offshore fields 90 kilometres out to sea and transferred to PetroSA via a submerged pipeline, where it’s converted into diesel, gasoline and other fuels.

However, local gas resources are about to run out, so PetroSA is proposing to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). To do this, they’ll need to build a floating LNG facility capable of transferring gas from large vessels, known as LNG carriers. In October 2008, PetroSA announced a proposal to build this facility three to seven kilometres off the shore of Vleesbaai.

‘This is in effect rezoning Vleesbaai from a pristine piece of nature to an industrial site,’ says Mareo Bekker, chairman of the Rescue Vleesbaai Action Group (REVAG) formed in response to the plan. According to Fred Orban, founder of the Oystercatcher Hiking Trail, which runs through Vleesbaai, ‘Such a facility will no doubt have a negative effect on the whole Garden Route as a major tourist attraction and job provider in the medium to long term.’

Dr Alan Heydorn, a coastal ecologist and marine consultant, wrote that the potential impacts of the proposed facility include noise, water pollution, the disorientation and entanglement of marine mammals and ‘the inestimable catastrophic long-term consequences in the event of a fire or explosion on one of the floating liquefied gas vessels’.

Despite determined opposition from the community, they have a sense that the project will go ahead no matter what. A public participation process for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) is underway, but REVAG describes the background information document as ‘woefully insufficient’ and believes that the EIA process is fatally flawed.

One of their chief objections is that alternatives have not been properly considered. PetroSA says the project would mean connecting an extension to the existing gas pipeline ‘as close as possible to shore’. To build it so close to the coast is ‘just unacceptable,’ says Wayne Meyer of the Fransmanshoek Conservancy. Aiden Beck, conservation officer for Pinnacle Point, agrees: ‘If you took this thing 50 kilometres offshore, no-one would worry. But it all comes down to cost.’

Other alternatives the community would like to see assessed include offloading the gas at the existing gas field 90 kilometres offshore, using the port of Coega, ship-to-ship gas transfers in the Mossel Bay waters or the legally required ‘no-go’ alternative: not doing the project at all.

According to PetroSA, the company is committed to the EIA process and all alternatives will be fully investigated for the scoping report, planned to be released for public comment in mid March. ‘Considering the level of interest being displayed, any irregularities will soon be identified,’ says Thabo Mabaso, communications manager for PetroSA.

First published in the March 2009 issue of Getaway Magazine.

Update August 2012: The threat of the LNG project on the Garden Route continues to loom large. For more information about REVAG, visit www.revag.co.za.

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