Australia coastline

Opposition is rising against oil and gas giant BP's proposal to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, which, conservation groups say, is one of the world's most significant remaining marine wilderness areas. Yet, both industry body Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) and BP maintain that, with proper regulatory oversight, the area can be explored with minimal impact on the environment, as well as delivering important economic benefits to the country.

In November 2015, Australia's National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA) determined that BP's environmental plan for its proposed exploration drilling in the Great Australian Bight failed to meet the body's acceptance criteria, offering them a chance to submit a modified proposal, which they did in March 2016. And while this has largely been portrayed in the press as a 'rejection' of BP's initial proposal, both NOPSEMA and BP are keen to stress that it's just how the process works.

As a BP spokesperson explains, "an 'opportunity to modify and resubmit' an Environment Plan is neither an acceptance nor a rejection, but is part of a normal iterative process and feedback and response."

NOPSEMA has now resumed its assessment and expects the next decision to be taken by 16 May. "This, however, may not be the final decision to accept or refuse to accept the environment plan," a spokesperson for the body says. "The law allows NOPSEMA to take as much time as required to ensure a professional, thorough and rigorous assessment before making a final decision."

"Any activity in the Bight will only proceed after extensive community consultation and rigorous assessment of any environmental impact."

For Matthew Doman, APPEA director for South Australia and the Northern Territory, if BP does eventually meet NOPSEMA's assessment criteria, there's no reason the project shouldn't go ahead.

"Any activity in the Bight will only proceed after extensive community consultation and rigorous assessment of any environmental impact by NOPSEMA, which has, since its establishment in 2012, proven to be a robust and independent regulator," he says. "With proper regulatory oversight, there is no reason a safe, sustainable offshore petroleum industry should not be possible for South Australia."

'Utterly inappropriate for industrialisation'

According to Wilderness Society South Australia director Peter Owen, though, this statement is entirely missing the point. "It fails to take into account the fact that the Great Australian Bight is a marine wilderness area of international significance and that even if BP has a best case scenario -with no catastrophic disaster happening in front of the world's eyes – the very act of industrialising this area is going to have an extremely negative impact on what is a pristine marine wilderness area."

Currently, the Bight provides a habitat for a huge range of nationally and internationally important species including Southern Right whales (it's home to one of the biggest Southern Right Whale nurseries in the world), dolphins (pods can sometimes be a thousand strong) and Australian sea lions, as well as 1,500 different types of algae and 612 fish species, among many, many others. "It's an incredible place and an utterly inappropriate place to be trying to industrialise," Owen emphasises. "Plus, its home to some of the roughest, most remote waters in the world with a coastline made up of 70m-high sheer cliffs for hundreds of kilometres. How you would ever clean an oil spill in this area, I have no idea."

The Wilderness Society is certainly not alone in its opposition to the plan. Recent months have seen the Australian Senate launch an inquiry into the project's potential environmental, social and economic impacts, as well as protests in Melbourne and London. On top of environmental impacts, protestors led by The Great Australian Bight Alliance argued that an oil spill in the Bight would be devastating for South Australia's AU$442m fishing industry and its tourism industries in coastal regions, which are worth more than AU$1bn. Together, the industries employ more than 10,000 full-time employees.

Economic benefits

On the other hand, BP and APPEA are keen to highlight the economic benefits the project would bring to the region if it were to go ahead. "The successful development of oil and gas reserves in the Great Australian Bight would enhance Australia's energy security and deliver significant benefits to local, state and national economies," Doman says. "For example, economic modelling shows that oil and gas development in Bass Straight, the closest offshore petroleum province to the Bight, has contributed more than $200 billion to Australia's gross domestic product over the last four decades and created around 50,000 permanent additional jobs in Victoria."

"The successful development of oil and gas reserves in the Great Australian Bight would enhance Australia's energy security."

BP's spokesperson also said that even during the current exploration phase, contracts have been awarded in connection with onshore supply base infrastructure, which have created economic benefits and jobs for South Australia, and that approximately 1,000 local businesses have already registered with the Industry Capability Network to express an interest in working on the project.

Ultimately, however, the project's potential economic benefits won't have any influence on whether or not it's approved, as NOPSEMA's environmental assessments focus solely on "ensuring that all the requirements of the Environment Regulations are met and that environmental risks and impacts are not unacceptable."

Safe, sustainable operations or the height of irresponsibility?

If Australia's environmental regulations are ultimately met, Doman will be happy to see the project proceed: "The industry's record of safe, sustainable operations offshore in neighbouring Victoria show that a similar development could occur in the Bight with minimal risk to the environment," he concludes.

Owen's sign-off, however, expresses a very different sentiment, as he stresses the conservation community's two key concerns with the project: "One, this is absolutely the wrong place to be doing this; and two, it is absolutely the wrong time in history to be trying to expand this industry. We can't afford to be expanding the fossil fuel industry – we simply don't have that option. The climate is changing very quickly and we're going to cook the planet if we continue on the trajectory we're on. On both these fronts, there is very, very serious concern. It's the height of irresponsibility."