Johannesburg (AFP) -
A South African court on Tuesday blocked Shell from using seismic waves to explore for oil and gas in the Indian Ocean, in a victory for environmentalists worried about the impact on whales and other species.
Backing a suit filed by conservationists, the High Court in the Eastern Cape town of Makhanda ruled that Shell was 'hereby interdicted from undertaking seismic survey operations.'
The fossil fuel giant had announced plans to start exploration over more than 6,000 square kilometres (2,300 square miles) of ocean off South Africa's Wild Coast region.
The Wild Coast is a 300-kilometre (185-mile) stretch of natural beauty, dotted with marine and nature reserves.
The area of interest lies 20 kilometres (12 miles) off the coast, in waters 700 to 3,000 meters deep (2,300 to 10,000 feet).
Shell's scheme entails using seismic shockwaves which bounce off the sea bed, and whose signature can point to potentially energy-bearing sites.
'Many sea creatures will be affected, from whales, dolphins, seals, penguins to tiny plankton that will be blasted,' said Janet Solomon, of the environmental group Oceans Not Oil in the runup to the hearing.
Exploration had been scheduled to start on December 1 and last up to five months.
A Shell spokesperson said Tuesday: 'We respect the court's decision and have paused the survey while we review the judgement.
- 'Huge victory' -
'Surveys of this nature have been conducted for over 50 years with more than 15 years of extensive peer-reviewed scientific research.'
The campaigners were jubilant at the ruling, but stressed that the relief was only temporary.
'It's a huge victory,' said Katherine Robinson of the NGO Natural Justice.
'But the struggle is not over -- this decision is just the interdict. We understand that the proceedings will continue.'
A petition against the project had gathered nearly 85,000 signatures.
Campaigners said the scheme would entail 'one extremely loud shock wave every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for five months at a time.'
Shell argued that it took 'great care to prevent or minimise' the impact on wildlife, and promised that the work would strictly follow the guidelines of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, a UK government adviser on nature conservation.
On Tuesday, it also stressed what it described as the benefits for South Africa if oil and gas were found.
'South Africa is highly reliant on?energy?imports for many of its energy needs,' the company's spokesperson said.
'If viable resources?were to be found offshore, this could significantly contribute to?the country?s energy security and the government?s economic development programmes.'
South Africa's energy ministry had backed the scheme, and lashed those who opposed it as thwarting investment in the country's development.
The High Court's ruling comes after a lower court rejected the conservationists' suit in early December.
Several fishermen and local groups were also part of the petition.