The Great Australian Bight has always been considered too wild and too deep to even consider drilling for oil out there. They’d be drilling in waters two kilometres deep, then drilling two kilometres into the seabed, in some of the wildest ocean on earth. What could go wrong? It would be cavalier and breathtakingly irresponsible. There are no oil rigs in The Bight for good reason.
In 2011 however, the Australian Government granted oil giant BP four offshore exploration permits in the Bight, along with leases for other Big Oil and energy companies.
Big Oil was scrambling. As oil reserves globally dwindled and the transition to renewable energy gained speed, Big Oil was in a race to get their name on the last untapped reserves in increasingly remote and risky parts of the world. This is what has brought them to the Bight.
Perversely, when the Federal Government granted BP their exploration permits in 2011 it was less than a year after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, claiming 11 lives and devastating Gulf coastlines. It was the worst accidental oil spill in history, and yet less than a year later the same company was granted permits in waters twice as deep as the Gulf of Mexico, waters open to the full force of the Roaring Forties and Antarctic storms.
But the Bight is also home to one of the last great pristine marine environments on earth. Eighty five per cent of species living in the Bight are found nowhere else. It’s home to the southern right whale, the Australian sea lion, the southern bluefin tuna, and is also home to thriving fishing and tourism industries that generate over a billion dollars annually. It’s also home to surfers, fishermen, divers, and local communities dotted along the Bight coast.
Photo by: SA Rips Surfer: Heath Joske
In Australia, before oil companies can begin drilling they need to apply for a licence from NOPSEMA – the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. When BP applied to NOPSEMA to drill in the Bight, their modelling showed a worse case spill in winter would wash up on beaches between Margaret River and New Zealand. The Eyre Peninsula would cop the brunt, but the oil would spread along the Victorian coast, circumnavigate Tasmania, and make its way up the NSW south coast. The rig needed to drill a relieving well would need to come all the way from Singapore. There would be oil on beaches for years. It would be catastrophic. Even more perversely, when BP’s proposal was reluctantly made public later, they’d claimed the clean up of any oil spill would, “be a welcome boost to [local] economies."
Local grassroots groups were incensed. Small groups rallied together under the banner of the Great Australian Bight Alliance and the “Fight For The Bight” began. The Wilderness Society and Sea Shepherd joined in and campaigned hard against the proposal, and in late 2016, after NOPSEMA had rejected their proposal three times, BP announced it would be withdrawing its application for exploratory drilling in the Bight. A year later Chevron announced it too was pulling out.
They were significant victories but the Bight is far from safe today. Two of BP’s leases were sold to Norwegian company Statoil (who've since changed their name to Equinor as a public image exercise) who plan to be drilling in the Bight by October 2019. Before that can happen they will conduct seismic testing to locate oil reserves deep below, blasting the seafloor for months on end with charges that create underwater noise of up to 259dB. The Bight is home to 30 whale species, and the seismic testing has the potential to disrupt if not destroy migratory habitats that have survived undisturbed for hundreds of thousands of years.
With BP and Chevron abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Bight, the time has come to protect the Bight from multinational Big Oil for good.
“we’re going to fight you till you leave this country. I’m sorry to say, mate, you’re not welcome here.”
Equinor, and the remaining leaseholders, need to leave the Bight. As Indigenous elder Bunna Lawrie says to Big Oil in the film Operation Jeedara, “we’re going to fight you till you leave this country. I’m sorry to say, mate, you’re not welcome here.” If one drill breaks the seabed in the Bight, more will follow. That first well needs to be stopped, and it’s Equinor who wants to drill it. If Equinor – like BP and Chevron – abandon plans to drill, there’s a strong case for a moratorium to be put in place on oil drilling in the Bight and this wild coastline can stay wild.
On a national level, The Wilderness Society, Patagonia and Sea Shepherd are each campaigning for Big Oil to leave the Bight for good. On a local level The Great Australian Bight Alliance has united the voices of locals and grassroots groups along the Bight coast, and their stories can be heard in Patagonia’s movie Never Town. Patagonia stands behind local activists campaigning to keep the Bight free.
Photo by: Stu Gibson