A South African court on Tuesday blocked Shell from using seismic waves to explore for oil and gas in the Indian Ocean, handing a landmark victory to environmentalists worried about the impact on whales and other species.
Backing a suit filed by conservationists and local groups, the High Court in the Eastern Cape town of Makhanda declared Shell was "interdicted from undertaking seismic survey operations", a decision that has immediate effect.
Consultations with coastal communities had been "substantially flawed", and this made Shell's survey application "unlawful and invalid", Judge Gerald Bloem said.
The fossil-fuel giant had planned to start exploration over more than 6,000 square kilometres (2,300 square miles) of ocean off South Africa's Wild Coast -- a 300-kilometre (185-mile) stretch of natural beauty dotted with marine and nature reserves.
The surveying technique entails using seismic blasts that bounce shockwaves off the sea bed. The return signal is turned into a 3D model to highlight locations with energy-bearing potential.
But the Anglo-Dutch giant ran into fierce opposition, as campaigners warned of potential harm to whales, dolphins and seals, which rely on hearing to survive, as well as to birds, fish stocks and microscopic plankton.
A Shell spokesperson said: "We respect the court's decision and have paused the survey while we review the judgment."
They did not say whether the corporation would file an appeal but reiterated that the operation was safe.
"Surveys of this nature have been conducted for over 50 years with more than 15 years of extensive peer-reviewed scientific research."
The company's area of interest is in the ocean floor 20 kilometres (12 miles) off the coast, in waters 700 to 3,000 meters deep (2,300 to 10,000 feet).
Exploration had been scheduled to start on December 1 and last up to five months.
- 'Huge victory' -
As the legal battle played out this month, protests were staged at beaches around the country, gathering thousands of demonstrators.
Campaigners also blocked Shell petrol stations, urging drivers to boycott the company's products.
A petition gathered nearly 85,000 signatures.
Green groups were jubilant at Tuesday's ruling, but stressed that the relief may be 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."
Sinegugu Zukulu of an NGO called Sustaining the Wild Coast said: "The voices of the voiceless have been heard. The voices of the directly affected people have at last been heard, and the constitutional rights of indigenous people have been upheld."
Campaigners said the scheme would entail "one extremely loud shock wave every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for five months at a time", dealing potentially crippling harm to whales and other species that depend on hearing to survive.
Shell had 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 British public body that advises the UK government on nature conservation.
On Tuesday, it chose to emphasise 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.
- Consultation -
The High Court's ruling comes after a lower court rejected the conservationists' suit in early December.
Fishermen and local groups were also among the petitioners, and their objections were key to the High Court's decision.
In a detailed ruling seen by AFP, Judge Bloem took aim at what he called a "substantially flawed consultation process".
Shell had said that it had carried out a thorough "stakeholder analysis" to buttress the survey application.
But, said Bloem, the oil giant had failed to consult adequately with small-scale and subsistence communities on the coast where the operations would be carried out.
These communities not only depended on fishing to survive, but also had spiritual beliefs about the sea, including the conviction that their ancestors resided in the ocean, he said.
Their views had not been properly taken into account, said Bloem.
"Where conduct offends those practices and beliefs and impacts negatively on the environment, the court has a duty to step in and protect those who are offended and the environment," he said in the ruling.