The Great Australian Bight
Everybody is familiar with the Great Barrier Reef of the coast of Australia. Few are however familiar The Great Australian Bight (GAB). Norway Today is proud to present this article on this largely unexplored area, which has caught the eye of Statoil among others. This article is courtesy of guest writer Nick Rodway.
While recent environmental reporting in Australia has focused on the health of the Great Barrier Reef, there is another natural wonder on the continent facing its own challenges. The Great Australian Bight (GAB) is an area that encompasses the central portions of the southern coastline of Australia. Roughly the same size as Denmark, the GAB is an isolated part of the country, and remains largely unexplored even today. Famed for its diverse ecology, it is estimated that 85 percent of the GAB’s flora and fauna are endemic to the region.
The waters of the GAB also contain rich mineral deposits, with recent data suggesting there are both oil and gas reserves located offshore. While exploration in this area has been considered since last century, the relative distance of these deposits from the Australian mainland has discouraged companies from exploring in the area. This, coupled with tumultuous conditions – the seas in the southern ocean are some of the roughest in the world – has deterred all but a select few from laying plans to drill. In 2016, British Petroleum and Chevron Mobil retracted their interest in the region, leaving only Norwegian energy company Statoil ASA with an exploratory drilling licence.
Statoil have stated that they plan to explore in the GAB in late 2019; however, this has resulted in significant opposition from environmental groups and divisions within the Australian community.
Peter Owen, from environmental organisation The Wilderness Society, spoke to Norway Today and highlighted the risks involved with exploring in this area: “The Great Australian Bight is a completely inappropriate place for risky deep sea oil drilling” he said. “Actively pushing to expand the fossil fuel industry is the height of irresponsibility”.
In 2016, an independent study researched the possible effects if a significant oil spill was to occur in the GAB. The study suggested that such a spill would be catastrophic, affecting the majority of the southern coastline of Australia, including the island state of Tasmania.
Safety topmost priority
Statoil believes that safety is the key priority for the company when it comes to drilling. “(Statoil) will only undertake drilling activity if we can do it safely,” the company’s Press Spokesman Erik Haaland told Norway Today. “By the time we drill we will have spent more than two years planning this well to satisfy ourselves that we can operate safely and in accordance with Australia’s strict environmental and regulatory requirements”.
Under the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) guidelines, companies proposing to undertake oil and gas activities are required by law to “consult with persons whose functions, interests or activities may be affected by the activity”.
Haaland highlighted that Statoil has met with “over 60 organisations”, including “industry associations, tourism operators, conservation groups and local councils”. The company has also submitted a request to NOPESMA to “improve the transparency of the approval process”. The request has recently been approved.
The community however appears divided on this issue, with six local councils across the southern coastline passing resolutions raising concern with oil drilling. What this suggests is that the risks associated with drilling are seen as a threat to the region, even when the state of South Australia is struggling from lack of industry as manufacturing – the backbone of the state’s economy – is moved offshore.
The possibility of job growth has been floated by Statoil. Haaland conveyed that if the exploration resulted in a commercial discovery, there would be ‘hundreds of jobs’ created for local South Australians. However, the biggest current employment sectors in the GAB region are tourism, fishing and aquaculture, with international tourism alone investing 1 billion dollars into the local economy last year. As a result, local conservation foundations such as the Great Australian Bight Alliance have voiced their concern over the threats an oil spill could pose to industries already in place.
For Owen, there is “no social licence in risking the tourism industry, the fishing industry and the pristine coastline” for any job growth in the mining sector. “Mining in the Great Australian Bight is not an option if we are to have any chance of providing our children with a livable climate in the future”.
This issue is sure to divide the community for some time to come.
© Nick Rodway / #Norway Today