Just over five years ago, BP was responsible for the Deepwater Horizon well blowout resulting in a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and gas spilled into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days until the well could be successfully capped. It is now estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from the well with a flow rate reaching 62,200 barrels per day in April 2010. Inaccurate flow rates were originally reported at an order of magnitude less than this — 1,000–6,000 barrels per day — raising concerns about oil companies’ capacity to accurately determine such factors during assessment processes.
BP’s catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil blowout and spill occurred during exploration drilling — the same activity that BP now proposes in the Great Australian Bight. BP is proposing deepwater drilling at the frontier of technical capacity. Drilling is proposed at water depths of up to 2.2km, and depths of up to 3km into the sea bed, in the extraordinarily rough, unpredictable and remote seas of the Bight.
A spill catastrophe of the scale seen in the Gulf of Mexico would be disastrous for the marine life of the Great Australian Bight and marine industries (particularly fishing and tourism) across southern Australia. So far, BP has refused to publicly release its oil spill modelling for the planned wells or its Emergency Response Plan.
Given the lack of information being provided to the public by BP, independent expert oil spill modelling was commissioned to enable the community to understand and consider these risks. The results demonstrate the unacceptable scale of the risks presented by drilling in the Bight.
Conducted by oceanographer and oil spill modelling expert Laurent C. M. Lebreton, MSc., the modelling shows that due to the strong winds and highly energetic waves of the Southern Ocean, the trajectories of an oil slick and particles have the potential to cover vast areas of Australia’s southern waters and coastline.
If a blowout and spill were to occur in summer, aside from the direct and severe impact in near water, the oil would very likely impact the shores of Western Australia. Simulations show oil contamination could reach as far as Albany and Denmark. Under these conditions, the model predicts that within four months, an area of roughly 213,000km2 would have an 80% chance of having surface oil thickness above levels likely to trigger the closure of fisheries.
Figure: Socioeconomic impact analysis for summer after 4 months (Scenario 2A with oiling threshold of 0.01g/m2)
If a blowout and spill were to occur in winter, the oil would very likely impact the Eyre Peninsula, Kangaroo Island, and Spencer Gulf in South Australia, with simulations showing oil could impact much of the Victorian and Tasmanian coastline, right through the Bass Straight towards New Zealand. Under these conditions, the model predicts that within four months, an area of roughly 265,000km2 would have an 80% chance of having surface oil thickness above levels likely to trigger the closure of fisheries.
Figure: Socioeconomic impact analysis for Winter after 4 months (Scenario 2A with oiling threshold of 0.01g/m2)
These potential impacts would devastate marine life, fisheries, coastal communities and seriously tarnish the clean, pristine image of Australia’s Southern Ocean and beaches. This is compounded by the fact that in the event of a well blowout — as uncovered by a Freedom of Information request from the Wilderness Society — BP would have to bring critical response infrastructure from Singapore (more than 4,800km away) and/or Houston, Texas (more than 14,000km away) and that if a relief well was needed this could take 157 days.