Environmental organisations the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and groundWork have been notified that their case challenging the environmental authorisation by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) for a 3 000 MW combined cycle gas power plant, in Richards Bay, will be heard in the North Gauteng High Court later this year.
It is the first court case in South Africa challenging the environmental authorisation of a gas power plant, and the litigation raises specific concern about an inadequate assessment of climate change impacts and alternatives to this project, which include renewable energy.
The applicant organisations argue that the total life-cycle greenhouse-gas (GHG) and methane emissions from the power plant should have been properly assessed, as the latest scientific information on gas suggests that the GHG footprint of gas is worse than that of either coal or oil, particularly when considered in the 20-year timescale most relevant to our climate future, the organisations say.
“Even if the world were to limit global warming to 1.5 °C, which is very unlikely as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns, Southern Africa is still warming at twice the global rate, meaning we are already locked into a disastrous future, beyond a point at which we can adapt,” says environmental organisation Natural Justice head of campaigns Katherine Robinson.
“If South Africa wants to secure a liveable future and avert unparalleled human suffering and ecological disaster, we must slash emissions by halting fossil fuel expansion, and accelerate an energy transition that puts justice, people and planet at its centre,” she says.
The SDCEA and groundWork, represented by environmental law specialists Cullinan and Associates and supported by Natural Justice, approached the High Court after Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy refused the organisations’ appeal against this decision, and the authorisation will now come under judicial review, the organisations say.
The court arguments in this matter are based on a number of concerns raised regarding the environmental-impact assessment (EIA) and the process of public participation that was undertaken. Like in the case of Searcher Geodata, the public participation process for this development was flawed, as many communities were excluded from the public participation process, the organisations say.
Another major concern regarding the case is the need and desirability of the gas plant. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and independent auditing firm Meridian have shown in a previous detailed modelling study that, under a least-cost scenario, a combined cycle mid-merit gas power plant, like the proposed Richards Bay plant, is not necessary for at least another 15 years, if at all, to meet South Africa’s energy demands. Until then, alternatives are available to meet reliability needs during limited hours of peak electricity demand.
“The people in Richards Bay have never been consulted nor were they informed about the development of this gas power plant. This development has failed by not taking the local population along with them and not a select few if this will improve and create a better life,” says SDCEA coordinator Des D’Sa.
“While [State-owned power utility] Eskom is reported to benefit from international financing to repurpose coal-fired power stations due for decommissioning, and to support its plans to decarbonise from coal to green energy, there is nothing that Eskom is doing to ensure that the transition is just.
"There is also no indication whether it will enable affordability and accessibility of energy for the poor and fossil fuel affected communities who bear the cost of ill-health, loss of life and environmental degradation, without access to electricity,” says groundWork senior campaign manager Avena Jacklin.
“How will Eskom effect reparations for social, environmental and climate injustices? Eskom’s obsession with exporting before meeting the needs of the country is worrisome, as is its promotion of gas as a transitionary fuel which will lock us into gas for a longer period than is necessary.
“Gas is by no means clean or green and growing evidence is showing that it is in fact more detrimental than coal to the climate crisis. Eskom also needs to address its violation of community’s rights to free, prior and informed consent, as communities are not properly informed and part of the decision-making process,” she avers.
Taking into account the decisions of the court in recent cases like Shell and Searcher Geodata, where the court has ruled in favour of community concerns around impacts of oil and gas exploration, it is becoming more imperative that the South African government provides authorisation only in cases where thorough climate change impact assessments are completed, the impacts are acceptable, and full, equitable and transparent public participation processes have been conducted, the organisations say.
These reinforce the principle of leaving no one behind. This is critical, especially as South Africa seeks to enact the Climate Change Bill, which will legislate the reduction of GHG emissions and prepare South Africa to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, as well as protect the constitutionally enshrined right to an environment that is not harmful to health and wellbeing, they state.