Sean Doherty: Australia Cooks as Bight Oil Field Approved

19 Dec 2019 10 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: Ed Sloane

Photo: Ed Sloane

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

In a piece of perverse timing, as Australia experienced its hottest day ever on record, a Norwegian fossil fuel company was given formal approval to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

As the saying goes in pre-apocalyptic Australia, “Cool and normal.”

As temperatures averaged out at 40.9°C across the entire country yesterday and huge national debate rages around climate change and the contribution Australia’s fossil fuel industry is making to it, the Australian offshore oil and gas regulator NOPSEMA announced that Equinor has been given approval to drill an exploratory oil well in the Bight.

The Stromlo 1 well site is 372km off the coast of Ceduna in open waters 2239m deep. When drilled it will be the deepest and most remote oil well in Australian waters, and one of the deepest and most remote wells anywhere in the world. The drilling is planned to begin in November 2020. With several other fossil fuel companies holding exploratory leases in the area, the decision paves the way for the Bight to be developed into a frontier oil basin.

The news of the approval was met with a hostile reaction from surfers and conservationists right around the Australian coast. “It’s a fucking disgrace,” offered surfing activist Heath Joske who lives on the Bight coast and has found himself out front of the campaign against Equinor. “Nobody in Australia wants this to go ahead… apart from the people who stand to make a lot of money from it. They have absolutely no social license to do this. They are turning a thriving marine wilderness into a frontier oil field, risking our whole coastline for the profits of an overseas fossil fuel company. It’s madness.”

Yesterday’s approval was third time lucky for Equinor. Their Environment Plan has been rejected twice this year by industry regulator NOPSEMA, who has come under fire during the process for their close ties to the oil and gas industry and accusations they have coached Equinor to an approval. “You’ve got the supposedly ‘independent’ regulator turning up to dinners and functions with the oil and gas lobby,” says Joske. “Where was our meeting with NOPSEMA? Where are the Resources Minister and the Environment Minister? We haven’t seen anyone.” Public anger has simmered since the approvals process was taken behind closed doors in April this year. “We’ve been completely kept in the dark,” says Joske, who like many of the Bight campaigners has become a keen student of offshore drilling and has closely scrutinised Equinor’s plan himself. 

Joske was one of the leading critics of Equinor’s assessment of the sea state they’d be working in out in the Bight. As a surfer and fisherman working in the Bight, Joske was gobsmacked that the initial 1500-page plan included only a handful of pages on the ocean state out in the Bight. Open to the Roaring Forties and Antarctic circumpolar weather, it’s one of the wildest stretches of ocean in the world. “They were heavily undercalling the swell and weather out in the Bight,” he says. “And not only that, they were almost arrogant about it. Because they’ve drilled in the North Sea they said they can drill anywhere. I’ve literally had Equinor guys say that to me.”

FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE AUSTRALIAN COAST, THE FIGHT FOR THE BIGHT HAS BECOME THEIR WAY OF EXPRESSING THEIR CONCERN.

As part of the final approved plan, Equinor were forced to provide more data around ocean conditions. They were also forced to source a secondary drilling rig from Australian waters in case of a well blowout and a relief well needing to be drilled. Previously they were planning to source this rig from Singapore. “The feeling here is they’ve done the bare minimum to get this over the line,” says Joske. “Nobody here for a second believes they actually give a shit about this coast or anyone on it.”

Equinor initially lodged its Environment Plan for their Bight well in February this year. They chose at the time to make the EP public and as a result NOPSEMA received over 31,000 public submissions against it. These submissions were summarily dismissed by Equinor, who claimed only 13 of the 31,000 were relevant to the EP. Equinor then resubmitted their revised EP on April 23, one day before a change in legislation would have forced them to make the whole process public. It’s been behind closed doors since then. The plan was rejected for a second time on November 11 before finally being approved yesterday. NOPSEMA, however, only approve on technical, safety and environmental grounds. The real push for the Bight to be developed into an oil field comes from higher up. 

The current temperature in Australia is hot in more ways than one. With weather records being broken all across the country and with bushfires leaving Sydney blanketed in smoke for weeks now, climate change dominates the national agenda. Yesterday’s decision was made against the backdrop of huge rolling protests over the Federal Government’s continued championing of the coal, oil and gas industries. At last week’s UN Climate Change conference in Madrid, Australia was one of just three countries to lobby against more ambitious global emissions targets and tighter regulations around emissions targets. The other two countries were the USA and Brazil. In the middle of all this, with a bushfire crisis continuing and with a State of Emergency declared in NSW, the Australian Prime Minister has taken off to Hawaii on holidays where he’s apparently been spotted on Oahu’s North Shore. While he’s in Hawaii a thousand people are presently on the street out the front of his house in Sydney, protesting.

For the people of the Australian coast, the Fight For the Bight has become their way of expressing their concern not only about Equinor’s frontier drilling in the Great Australian Bight, but also about maintaining some kind of liveable future for generations ahead.

“THERE’S WAY TOO MUCH AT STAKE HERE TO ROLL OVER AND LET THIS BULLSHIT JUST HAPPEN.”

“Mate, yesterday at home in Streaky Bay it was 48 degrees,” says Joske. “It’s been over 40 for almost a week and that’s not just here. We’ve known about climate change for decades now, but suddenly it’s here. It’s arrived on our doorstep. This is what it looks like. And Australia’s response is to keep digging and drilling and burning fossil fuels. The guys in charge are simply not interested in lowering emissions or developing renewable energy, because they’re in the back pocket of the fossil fuel lobby. It’s all profit and politics. It’s madness.”

While they have approval for an exploratory well, Equinor still have two further approvals before a Bight well can produce oil. And of course, they have to find it first. There are no guarantees it’s even there in commercial volumes. For Bight campaigners it still feels like there’s hope.

Three weeks ago, 20,000 surfers paddled out around the country in support of the Bight. Meanwhile a parallel protest movement has taken root in Norway. Equinor is two-thirds owned by the Norwegian people and have to ultimately answer to them. Joske travelled to Norway earlier in the year and spoke at Equinor’s AGM, delivering a plea to shareholders to leave the Bight alone. “Norway has become incredibly rich from oil, but Norwegians are also a progressive mob who know the world needs to change. They’ve already made a huge transition to renewable energy and some kind of sustainable society at home, and yet you have Equinor halfway around the world digging a dirty, dangerous oil well hundreds of miles off the Australian coast. We really need the Norwegian people to tell Equinor to back off. Equinor are shaming the Norwegian people and that’s not fair.”

As for what’s next in the Bight campaign, Joske remains upbeat. “It’s so hot here today, I’ll sit down this afternoon and have a beer and think about it, but this is a long way from being done. A long way. There’s way too much at stake here to roll over and let this bullshit just happen.”

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