explainer

A risk to thousands of animals: The "horror show" of drilling the Great Australian Bight.

The Great Australian Bight is so unique that more than three-quarters of the species living there exist nowhere else on the planet.

Its waters hold 36 species of whales and dolphins and it is one of the only places in the world that sea lions swim together in large communities. It’s the world’s most important nursery for the endangered southern white whale and its biodiversity is more unique than the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s an isolated, pristine corner of our country. It’s wild and beautiful and relatively untouched by humans.

Here is vision from one of the many paddle-outs staged in protest to the drilling. Post continues after video.

Video via

Oil companies have had their eyes on the under-explored and untouched wonder for years, and now a Norwegian based company is very close to getting sign off to drill for oil.

Yesterday Equinor won environmental approval for a well off the South Australia coast, the second of four approvals needed before they can actually start work.

It is an approval process that has been going for eight months, one that’s been fiercely fought against by environmental and community groups. In fact, it took three attempts for them to get this far, after being knocked back twice.

The Greens are calling the environmental sign-off a “pre Christmas horror show,” reports The Guardian. 

So, what do Australians want?

A national poll by the The Australian Institute found that 60 percent of the country opposed the drilling, with the rate of opposition in South Australia at 68 percent.

More than two thirds of Australians think the Bight should be given World Heritage Protection.

More than 30,000 people have written to the industry regulator NOPSEMA to voice their opposition against the plans, with 17 councils opposing the drilling.

#FightForTheBight paddle-outs have been carried out across the country with tens of thousands of Aussies taking part.

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The arguments against.

One of the biggest fears for the approval of drilling is the risk of an oil spill.

A spill could leak between 4.3 million barrels and 7.9 million barrels – the largest oil spill in history, according to estimates from the 2016 Worst Credible Discharge report, authored by Equinor and its former joint-venture partner, BP.

Last year the ABC obtained a leaked draft environment plan authored by Equinor itself.

Under a “worst credible case discharge” scenario more than 10 grams of oil per square metre could wash up on some of Australia’s coasts. Equinor has said it would take 17 days to respond in a ‘best case’ scenario.

Australian Bight
This map in Equinor's draft environment plan showed the potential impact of a spill. Image: ABC.

Maps included in the plan showed the potential for oil to reach as far north along the New South Wales coast as Port Macquarie and around to Albany in Western Australia.

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But when the company released its final plan in February this year, the more confronting images from the plan had been removed. Greenpeace has accused Equinor of downplaying the risk.

"We are required under strict Australian regulations to simulate 100 variations of an oil spill that is worse than anything that has ever happened. The modelling assumes that every piece of safety equipment on the rig fails, and nothing is done to stop the leak, contain or disperse the oil for a hundred days. In reality, we would respond immediately," Equinor told Mamamia in a statement.

The Australian Institute says an oil spill has the potential to wipe out Tasmania's wild catch fisheries - an industry worth around $200 million. It would also increase our contribution to global warming. Sea Shepard says it would single-handedly blow Australia's carbon budget.

"Burning fossil fuels for our energy needs is the single most significant driver of climate change. As the world is in climate crisis, it is now crucial that we transition away from fossil fuels toward a sustainable and clean energy future," they wrote in a statement on their site.

"If drilling is allowed to go ahead, billions of barrels of oil are expected to be burnt, turbocharging global warming at the exact time we should be drastically reducing carbon pollution," said Noah Schultz-Byard, The Australia Institute’s SA projects manager.

“Opening up the Bight and then burning billions of barrels of oil would be an extremely reckless thing to do as we’re already facing the increasing effects of global warming," he added.

The project is even getting pressure from overseas. An independent group of global leaders who call themselves 'Ocean Elders' have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten calling on them to stop the drilling.

“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,” the letter reads.

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Rocky coast of Great Australian Bight
The rocky coast of the Great Australian Bight Australia. Image: DeAgostini/Getty.

“Due to the depth and roughness of the seas in the Bight, and the absence of knowledge about pressure and temperature beneath the sea-bed, the likelihood of an accident is higher than in existing oil basins,” it continues.

It has been signed by leaders including Prince of Monaco Albert II, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and anthropologist Dame Jane Goodall.

Greenpeace backs up the Ocean Elders claims pointing to risk modelling done by BP who also looked at drilling in the area.

“The Great Australian Bight has some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet. Extreme deepwater drilling under such conditions is too risky. Any spill would be catastrophic, as stochastic modelling done previously by BP has shown: the devastating impacts could reach from Perth in WA to Eden on the NSW south coast to as far away as Tasmania,” a statement on their website shows. 

Iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest is one of the many trying to halt the controversial project. He has warned he may launch a sizeable financial campaign against Equinor if it fails to change its plans.

What happens to the animals?

It goes without saying that an oil spill would kill animals. But it's important to reiterate it doesn't just kill the wildlife swimming in the water - it can also affect the eggs of fish, sea turtles, birds and other land based animals that also rely on the ocean.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster showed us what a catastrophic oil spill can look like in a worst case scenario. The disaster spilled 800 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days straight, killing more than 4,700 animals.

Australian sea lion
The bight is one of the only places in the world sea lions live in large communities. Photo by: Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty.
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The argument for.

Equinor has drilled more than 6000 wells off Norway without any incidents that resulted in pollution of the coastline and are confident they can do the same in Australia.

"We have extremely robust response arrangements so we can act immediately in the case of an unplanned event," Australia country manager Jone Stangeland told the ABC.

He was also quoted by AAP as saying, "we have been preparing for safe operations for two and a half years, holding over 400 meetings with more than 200 organisations across Southern Australia."

The Coalition government argues that the project will improve energy security and bring money and jobs to the region. In fact, Industry minister Matt Canavan says encouraging offshore oil exploration should be a "national priority" so Australia doesn't have to rely on volatile global markets, reports The Australian.

Canavan has referred to the Great Australian Bight as, "the most prospective frontier oil basin in the world." Apparently it could be used to generate six billion barrels before 2060.

The South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy says the project could result in 2000 long-term jobs in South Australia and generate more than $7 billion in annual tax revenue over 40 years.

When will the drilling start?

If approved, Equinor plans to begin work in late 2020 with the operations expected to last between 30 and 60 days.

The next decision point in the assessment process is scheduled to occur by December 30. But the many action groups across the country opposed to the drilling will be doing everything in their power to stop that from happening.

What can you do?

Sign the change.org petition: No oil drilling or seismic testing in Great Australian Bight.

Sign the Greenpeace petition: Add your name for permanent protection of the Bight.

Donate to Fight The Bight: Fight The Bight
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