Bedlam in the Bight: what will Australia’s new government mean for offshore oil?

Andrew Tunnicliffe 29 August 2019 (Last Updated August 29th, 2019 12:32)

Not known for his sympathetic view on climate change, Australia’s new Prime Minister faces some tough decisions in light of his re-election, and right at the top of the energy agenda is what to do about controversial plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight. Andrew Tunnicliffe finds out more.

Bedlam in the Bight: what will Australia’s new government mean for offshore oil?
Drone footage of Bunda Cliffs in the Great Australian Bight. Credit: Greenpeace

“I’ve always believed in miracles” newly re-elected Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told gathered supporters at is victory speech after confounding pollsters and winning power in the country’s general election in May. For months his Liberal-National coalition government had been behind Labor in the polls, with the expectation it would be defeated.

Like much in Australian politics today, the election campaign was loud, sometimes chaotic, with copious issues of local and national interest occupying much of the narrative. But at the heart of the debate were economics and climate change, despite Morrison’s attempts to silence climate rhetoric.

“Australia has been devastated by multiple climate disasters recently,” says Nathaniel Pelle, senior campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific. “From the fires in Tasmania to the drought in the interior, the heatwaves in our cities, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, and the storms and floods in Queensland, climate damage is hurting Australian families and is destroying the places we love.”

One major issue for the 16 million-strong electorate was the Great Australian Bight, a 720 mile stretch of ocean off the southern coast of Australia. Norwegian-based energy giant Equinor ASA, formally Statoil, has proposed a drilling programme, Stromlo-1, currently being considered by Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) in the Bight.

Stromlo-1: a controversial project

The proposed well is situated 231 miles off the southern coastline and 296 miles west of Port Lincoln. The global energy provider secured rights for exploration in the area back in 2017 after securing a swap agreement with BP for rights to the permit, but has faced significant public opposition ever since. Then the company said it believed Stromlo offered “high-impact potential in a frontier exploration setting”.

While concerns date back further than 2017, just days before the recent election a group of prominent individuals, including Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, Jane Goodall and Richard Branson, called on both sides of the political debate to protect the region from the prospect of drilling. In an open letter, the so-called Ocean Elders said: “If we are to meet the Paris Climate Accord to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees, it is essential that we do not open up new fossil fuel reserves, let alone in extremely dangerous and high conservation value environments such as the Bight.”

Their concerns are supported by Greenpeace. “The Great Australian Bight is one of the world’s most remarkable ocean areas, a pristine wilderness including hundreds of kilometres of towering cliffs and home to a critical whale sanctuary, tight-knit coastal communities and fishing towns, hundreds of world-class surf beaches, and more unique species than the famous Great Barrier Reef,” says Pelle.

Acknowledging the plan has been delayed a few times, Pelle says the threat of drilling remains high. However, Equinor has worked hard to address the concerns of Greenpeace, the Ocean Elders and the Australian public. Releasing a draft Environmental Plan open to public consultation earlier this year, the company’s Australian manager, Jone Stageland, said: “Over the last two years we have engaged with more than 100 different organisations in the South Australian community and they have consistently asked us to be open about our plans. We have listened.”

The plan details what Equinor says are “all relevant risks, however unlikely”. It’s not enough, however, according to Pelle: “The plan [Equinor] has put forward falls well short of global best practice, and when combined with the extraordinary risks that prevail in the Bight due to adverse conditions and a lack of infrastructure, the threat is very real.” He added the company’s own modelling shows the project “poses a serious threat to Australia’s beaches in the case of an oil spill”.

Stromlo-1 hit hard by election

As election day neared, public pressure forced the hand of the Government. Labor had already announced it would hold an inquiry into the impacts of offshore oil drilling in the Bight. As polling showed the Bight was a major issue in some marginal seats in South Australia and Victoria – 60% of Australians oppose the project – the now re-elected Coalition also pledged to hold an inquiry into the process around approving the drilling, overseen by NOPSEMA.

“The election was bad news for Equinor despite the re-election of the Coalition, with both major parties committing to new regulatory hurdles for drilling in the Bight,” says Pelle. “The Federal Government has committed to a review led by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, which will involve increased scrutiny of Equinor’s plans and the adequacy of Australia’s regulatory regime.”

Equinor’s Environmental Plan received more than 30,000 comments from the public, raising concerns on climate change, environmental impact and safety. In response it said it would produce a public report on how it planned to mitigate those concerns, although it added many of the comments “do not offer constructive feedback”.

It’s hard to see how Equinor can continue to face down criticism of its plans. “At present, 19 local councils Australia-wide… oppose oil exploration in the Bight, recognising that the future economic and social prosperity of the region depends on a clean and beautiful environment,” continues Pelle.

“We believe the weight of public opposition will see this project abandoned and will continue to fight toward that outcome. The public opposition is strong enough that both sides of politics have recognised that the oil industry will never gain a social licence to operate in the Bight.”

It’s not just oil occupying the mind of the electorate. Other fossil fuels such as coal, for which Morrison has long supported, are beginning to gain significant political traction.

“Scott Morrison’s Coalition government will now need to urgently stake out a credible pathway for reducing greenhouse gas pollution in Australia if we are to meet the Paris Accord. Climate change may not be Mr Morrison’s natural issue, but destiny has knocked, and he needs to take up the challenge urgently,” Pelle says.