Why is the Bight in trouble?
Seven years on and the costs of BP’s disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill continue to emerge. It was the worst in history - devastating marine life, fisheries, tourism and local communities. Now Big Oil are pushing to drill the Great Australian Bight placing the pristine marine environment at risk.
Exploration drilling is when it all went wrong in the Gulf of Mexico and they are proposing to try this in the Bight with waters far rougher, far more remote and far riskier than the Gulf of Mexico. To do this they need approval of an Environment Plan by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). BP submitted their plan on October 1st, 2015 and NOPSEMA rejected it BP then tried again and was knocked back and withdrew their submission in December 2016. It is antcipated that Chevron will be the next company to submit an application to NOPSEMA.
So why is the Bight in trouble?
Because the risks from any oil exploration are completely unacceptable. Because an oil spill is an unavoidable risk. Because Big Oil companies will not let us know enough information about an oil spill in the Bight and how it would be handled. Because an oil spill would inflict untold damage and hardship on the people and the environment, just like it did in the Gulf of Mexico.
Because Big Oil want to drill for oil in the Bight.
Background - Unique. Pristine. At Risk
The Great Australian Bight is one of the most pristine ocean environments left on Earth, supporting vibrant coastal communities, jobs and recreational activities. It supports wild fisheries and aquaculture industries worth around $440 million per annum (2012–13) and regional tourism industries worth around $1.2 billion per annum (2013–14).
Flanked by the Nullarbor and the longest range of sea cliffs in the world, the Bight is a haven for whales, fish, plants, birds, marine mammals and an array of invertebrate ecosystems. The area has unique nutrient upwellings which provide critical habitat for countless species: marine mammals, fish, birds, plants, and some of the last remaining colonies of endangered Australian sea lions. Scientists estimate that around 85% of the species that live in the Great Australian Bight are found nowhere else on Earth.
So what happens to the environment of the Bight affects the diversity of the marine world on a global scale. It is a critical sanctuary for many threatened marine species including Blue, Pygmy Blue, Sperm, Killer and Humpback whales, Australian Sea Lions, Great White Sharks and Albatross. The Head of the Bight and Twilight Reserve are internationally important Southern Right Whale nursery and calving areas. The Head of the Bight alone is a critical gathering area for this endangered species with up to half of the Australian population (around 10% of the global population) using the region. Each year between 25 and 55 calves are born here. Many other whale species migrate through the Bight.
Enter BIG OIL ... ...
Major oil companies want to explore and exploit the Great Australian Bight, considering it to be a “global oil frontier”. They have their eyes set on it becoming an oil field. They view the Arctic in the same way, but President Obama has prevented them moving into that region. In contrast, the Australian Government released new offshore oil and petroleum exploration licences in the waters of the Great Australian Bight.
BIG OIL in the shape of global British oil giant BP, partnered with Norway’s Statoil, is the most advanced in its intentions, followed closely by the US company Chevron. (Check out Chevron’s record of oil spills too!). BP has already undertaken seismic exploration and now wants to progress to deepwater exploration drilling. Chevron plans to commence exploratory drilling in 2018.
The Role AND Responsibility Of Governments
The proposed drilling for oil in the Bight is in Commonwealth waters and so the responsibility for it lies with the Australian Federal Government. As mentioned above, and in contrast to the actions of President Obama in the Arctic, the Australian Government released new offshore oil and petroleum exploration licences in the waters of the Great Australian Bight.
It has also removed responsibility for the environmental assessment and approval of offshore oil drilling projects in Commonwealth waters from the Federal Environment Minister and transferred it to an agency - the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Agency (NOPSEMA)
BP is required to submit an Environment Plan to gain approval for its deepwater exploration drilling program in the Bight and it did so on 1 October 2015. NOPSEMA rejected BP’s plan, stating that it did not meet regulatory requirements. BP has said they will submit an altered plan and still aim to drill the Bight.
State Governments have no authority over this matter, but have huge responsibilities for handling any emergencies such as oil spills, as does Local Government.
Oil Spill Modelling
Oil spill modelling commissioned by founding Alliance Partner, The Wilderness Society South Australia clearly demonstrates that an oil spill in the wild waters of the Bight would devastate marine life, fisheries, coastal communities and seriously tarnish the clean, pristine image of Australia’s Southern Ocean and beaches.
The risk from an oil spill in the Bight, as compared to the Gulf of Mexico is greater because of the sea and weather conditions. It is compounded by the fact that in the event of a well blowout, BP could have to bring critical response infrastructure from Singapore or Houston to drill a relief well and this could take up to 157 days (information obtained through Freedom of Information). More information about the oil spill modelling.