Environmental groups across Australia recently celebrated a delay to conduct seismic testing for gas and oil in the Great Australian Bight. They believe the technique used to detect gas and oil would hurt the environment and negatively impact the country’s most productive fishery although.
According to The Conversation, “Their main concerns include the lack of economic benefits for local communities, more fossil fuel investment, weak regulation, and the potential for an oil spill, devastating our ‘Great Southern Reef.’” The article also notes that a recent poll showed almost 70 percent of South Australians were opposed to drilling in the Bight.
While drilling and oil exploration has occurred in the Bight since the 1960s, it has never been done to the depths being proposed by Equinor, a Norwegian energy company. They are proposing a deepwater oil well more than two kilometers deep and 370 kilometers offshore but first need to acquire approval from the national petroleum regulator.
A report prepared by Australia Institute, a progressive think-tank, explores the potential benefits and risks of such a project. It notes, “Such deep water both increases costs for producers and increases environmental risks. Specialized ultra-deepwater equipment would be required to produce oil in the Bight and one of the world’s worst oil disasters, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, occurred in water of similar depth.”
Oil spill predictions, as quoted by The Guardian, range from 4.3 million (Equinor’s recent worst ‘credible’ case estimate) to 7.9 million barrels of oil (according to BP’s oil spill analysis) – both of which would be worse than the Deepwater Horizon spill and “either of these would be the largest accidental oil spill in history” and leaked oil could spread as far as New Zealand.
Another report, compiled by Greenpeace, has revealed than in the past three and a half years, Equinor had over fifty safety and control breaches including ten oil leaks. NOPSEMA, Australia’s national petroleum regulator, was also critically questioned for not requiring inspections of oil wells during construction to ensure they meet safety standards and for agreeing to speak at an event promoting the exploration of oil in the Bight.
Nathaniel Pelle, a Senior Campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific suggests, “This research shows that accidents and near-misses can and do regularly happen in the offshore oil industry and Equinor is no different to any other company. All of these incidents took place in Norway, which has some of the highest regulatory requirements for inspections in the world. Australian regulations are nowhere near as strict.”
He adds, “What’s really terrifying is how many of these incidents could have been worse if support infrastructure had not been close at hand to provide help quickly. Equinor does not plan to provide a second support rig in the Bight to help in the event of an accident – they would have to do that under Norwegian law. Equinor’s cost cutting in the Bight could mean help might not arrive in time to prevent an incident escalating into a major environmental catastrophe.”
Over 85 percent of the marine life species found in the Bight and surrounding coastline cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, relatively little is known about these specific and how this huge body of water supports marine line, although $20 million was dedicated to a four-year research program completed between 2013 and 2017.
Australia’s tuna industry has also expressed relief at the delay. Brian Jeffries, Chief Executive of the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Association, believes seismic exploration would “totally destroy” the tuna industry which employs more than 2,000 local South Australians. He says, “What’s at stake here is not just money – we’re talking about a very large amount of jobs and sustainability as well.”
While the delay has been welcomed and applauded, their next step is ensuring than no drilling can ever take place in the Great Australian Bight. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, as quoted by ABC News, states, “This is a good reprieve for the Great Australian Bight, the environment and the industries that rely on it being healthy. If you say yes to seismic testing, if you let seismic testing happen, it’s only a few steps aware from ruining the Great Australian Bight with big oil.”
Further community and organizational pressure will be needed as Equinor has signaled its intention to continue trying to explore the Bight and hopes drilling will begin in the summer of 2020/2021. It disputes the reports and the modelling they contain and downplays the risks of offshore oil drilling. The company claims, “The risks associated with drilling exploration wells far offshore are lower because any oil spilled would undergo weeks to months of weathering at sea, during which time its toxicity would be greatly reduced, before reaching sensitive coastal areas.”
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Sept. 24, 2019.