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Wild Coast residents demonstrate against Royal Dutch Shell's plans to start seismic surveys to explore petroleum systems, at Mzamba Beach, Sigidi, South Africa, on Dec. 5.ROGAN WARD/Reuters

South Africa’s energy minister defended on Thursday Royal Dutch Shell’s plans for seismic oil exploration along a pristine coastal stretch, saying critics of the plan want to deprive Africa of energy resources.

Environmentalists and others have protested against Shell’s plans to start seismic blasting on the Wild Coast, home to some of the country’s most undisturbed wildlife refuges, and a major tourist draw.

They say the blasting on the east coast threatens marine wildlife such as dolphins, seals, penguins and endangered humpback whales. Local people also fear the seismic surveys conducted over 6,000 square kilometres will kill or scare away the fish they depend on to live.

“I cannot help but ask myself, are these objections meant to ensure the status quo remains in Africa ... of energy poverty?” Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told a news conference.

“Could it be possible that this is an extreme pure love for the environment, or an unrelenting campaign to ensure Africa and South Africa do not see the investment inflows they need?”

Last Friday, a South African court struck down an application brought by environmentalists to stop the oil major exploring in the Wild Coast, rejecting as unproven their argument that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, especially migrating humpback whales.

Ecologists say seismic blasting, which involves firing high-powered airguns every 10 seconds and measuring the echoes to detect cavities under the sea bed, hurts wildlife, especially sea mammals, causing hearing loss, disturbing feeding and breeding, and interfering with their own communication systems.

The U.S. government last year declined to renew federal permits for fossil fuel companies to use seismic air guns off the Atlantic Coast, after objections from environmentalists and East Coast residents on similar grounds.

Mantashe defended the seismic surveys.

“There is currently no conclusive evidence ... that seismic surveys have caused irreparable harm to marine life,” he said.

Environmental groups are urging oil companies to stop prospecting, arguing the world has no chance of reaching net zero carbon by 2050 even if only existing oil deposits are burned. Earlier this year, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 from 2019 levels.

But Mantashe said, “Oil and gas exploitation has been carried out for decades across other economies in the world ... Africa deserves an equal chance.”

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