By Sue Reuther and Scott Masson
News of the large Brulpadda gas
The good news is that the country has access to considerable environmental expertise and experience in this specialised field. According to SRK Consulting associate partner and principal environmental consultant Sue Reuther, a discovery like Brulpadda could – if proven – still take a decade to bring into production.
“It may be too early to hail this as a game-changer for the South African economy, but it has certainly raised interest and more than a little excitement,” said Reuther. “Apart from the value of natural gas to the economy, it would also contribute hugely to national efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Natural gas emits about 50% less carbon dioxide when combusted than coal.”
There is no doubt much more work needs to be done – such as on further test-drilling and feasibility studies – before Brulpadda can be brought to market. Among the hurdles it will have to negotiate is the range of potential environmental impacts that must be investigated and addressed.
What needs to be done?
Prospective oil and gas explorers and developers in South Africa generally begin with acquiring a Technical Cooperation Permit or a Reconnaissance Permit, according to Scott Masson, senior environmental consultant at SRK. Environmental Management Programmes must be compiled and approved at this stage.
A subsequent Exploration Right allows the holder to carry out the entire value chain of petroleum exploration, and an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required in terms of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).
During this phase, new geological and geophysical data is gathered using seismic surveys and/or exploration drilling. The new data is processed, along with existing data, to define the oil and/or gas resource. The Production Right, which allows the holder to conduct operations relating to the development and production of oil or gas, also requires an EIA.
Among the environmental impacts which need to be studied and mitigated during (seismic) exploration are the effects of airguns, which are utilised to generate sound waves for seismic surveys, said Masson.
“This underwater noise can have impacts on marine fauna, including pathological injury and behavioural responses that may affect feeding and breeding success,” he said. “Marine fauna can also be injured in collisions with the seismic survey vessel or support vessel, or when they become entangled with towed equipment.”
Well drilling generates drill cuttings – essentially broken up pieces of rock removed from the drill hole by pumping drilling fluids into the well; these often accumulate on the sea bed close to the well.
Drilling fluids – which comprise water, clays, polymers, emulsifiers or other additives – can have an impact too. Temporary discharge plumes would disperse rapidly into the environment, but may impact on the marine environment in the immediate vicinity.
This could affect both the water quality in the water column and the benthic or sea-bed environment, as benthic organisms could be smothered. Well-drilling also generates underwater noise, which is a concern due to its potential impact, particularly on marine fauna.
Accidental events – such as a well blow-out, a fuel line rupture or a vessel collision at sea – also pose environmental risks. Although, Reuther noted, gas leaks at sea cause less pollution than oil, chemicals stored on drilling units could be a hazard.
“To minimise the chance of accidents, the oil and gas industry has developed and routinely implements protocols, such as airgun soft-start procedures and the use of blow-out preventers and water-based drilling muds. These inform mitigation measures included in EIAs conducted for such projects in South Africa,” said Reuther.
She emphasises that an EIA would also concern itself with socio-economic impacts – such as the effects on local fishermen when a safety exclusion zone is implemented around a seismic vessel or drilling rig. Excluding other users from this zone can have direct economic consequences for fishing vessels, and also indirect implications if the seismic survey or drilling alters the behaviour and location of fish stocks in the area.
“Our two decades of experience in working with environmental authorities to apply the relevant regulations puts us in a strong position to assist oil and gas companies to comply with local requirements,” she says. “We work with the oil majors, as well as the smaller juniors who focus on exploration before making deals with large producers.”
Among SRK’s recent projects have been EIAs for proposed production off SA’s south coast for PetroSA and 2D and 3D seismic surveys in the Orange Deep Basin off the west coast for Total and Impact Africa.
The company has also conducted environmental assessments for many offshore concession blocks in Angola and Mozambique and a macro-economic assessment of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline in Uganda and Tanzania.
As a member of the South African Oil & Gas Alliance (SAOGA), SRK keeps abreast of development and trends in the sector, and its regulatory developments.
“Our detailed understanding of the laws and regulations allowed us to recently assist a client obtain Environmental Authorisation for offshore exploration through a Scoping Phase assessment only,” Reuther added.
“There were very specific circumstances, of course, but this is indicative of our search for innovative and efficient approaches, which also save our clients time and money.”
Sue Reuther, who works in the Cape Town office of SRK Consulting, is certified as an Environmental Assessment Practitioner of South Africa (CEAPSA). With a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and BSc (Hons) in Economics, Sue has been involved in the oil and gas sector since 2010. Following two years in finance, Sue has practiced as an environmental consultant since 2005. She manages EIAs for a range of mining, infrastructure, energy and marine projects in South Africa and other parts of Africa, as well as in Suriname. Sue also undertakes economic specialist impact assessments and environmental auditing for international lenders.
Also based in SRK’s Cape Town office, Scott Masson has been involved with oil and gas projects since 2016. He is a Certified Environmental Assessment Practitioner of South Africa (CEAPSA), with a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Management and an MLA in Landscape Architecture. His expertise includes visual impact assessment, environmental impact assessment, environmental management programmes, integrated water and waste management plans, and environmental planning and sensitivity studies.