BP prepares to drill Great Australian Bight

A pelican soaked in oil after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. BP is expected to begin drilling several wells in South Austra

“A White House investigation … uncovered a culture of complacency, cost-cutting and systemic failures and companies unprepared to deal with accidents and consequences.”

That was how ABC News on January 18 summed up the findings of the US inquiry into last year’s disaster at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The explosion caused 11 deaths, and unleashed the worst accidental marine oil spill in history. About 4.9 million barrels of oil escaped over nearly three months before the well was capped.

So, wouldn’t you like to have the oil corporation responsible for that disaster drilling a seabed near you? Starting with seismic exploration next summer, that is what South Australians are about to see in the Great Australian Bight.

Last January, BP was awarded permits to seek oil and gas in an area the size of Wales more than 600 kilometres south-west of Port Lincoln. Waters in the lease are as deep as 4600 metres, three times the depth in which the Deepwater Horizon suffered its blowout.

Unlike the mostly placid seas off Louisiana, the Great Australian Bight features constant large swells. Waves in the fiercest storms reach as high as 16 metres.

On July 8, further permits were awarded to the Adelaide-based firm Bight Petroleum to explore and drill off the west coast of Kangaroo Island.

Geologists have known for decades that oil and gas are likely to lie beneath the Bight waters. Bitumen has been found washed up on Bight shores, and a Geoscience Australia survey completed in February 2009 saw organic-rich rocks dredged from the seabed. Bight Petroleum on its website likens the area to the oil-rich Niger delta in West Africa.

Over the years various firms have drilled some ten exploration wells, mostly in shallow water. In 1993, BHP’s Greenly 1 well, now in Bight Petroleum’s permit area, showed encouraging traces of oil and gas. Further west, Woodside Petroleum in 2003 drilled to 4000 metres before huge seas forced it to abandon its work.

After finishing its seismic mapping, BP is expected to move to drill several wells in 2013 and 2014, using a floating rig similar to the Deepwater Horizon. The April 5 Adelaide Advertiser looked forward to the Bight becoming “a major oil and gas reserve for Australia, with a 100 million barrel field, worth $10 billion.”

Environmentalists in South Australia are not so starry-eyed. BP’s exploration permits intersect the Great Australian Bight Marine Park, which the Conservation Council of South Australia describes as having “the greatest diversity of marine life anywhere in the world, with up to 90% … found nowhere else.”

In the 2003 Environment Plan for its exploration well, Woodside Petroleum notes the presence in the Bight of some 300 species of fish, of which an estimated 85% are unique to the region.

At least 17 species of whales and dolphins, including the endangered Blue whale, have been recorded there.

Also present are Australian sea lions, New Zealand fur seals, great white sharks, two species of turtle, and numerous seabirds. The Bight supports important commercial fisheries, especially southern bluefin tuna.

While admitting a lack of modelling, Woodside’s plan argues that “the expected rapid dispersion and evaporation of any spill”, along with the distance from coastlines, would prevent damage to environmentally sensitive areas.

Marine scientists, however, now understand the ecology of the region much better.

Flinders University oceanographer Jochen Kaempf recently led a study of nutrient-rich water that wells up via submarine canyons on the edge of the continental shelf south of Kangaroo Island, the Science Alert site said on July 8.

This water, Kaempf said, “collects southwest of Kangaroo Island in a subsurface pool approximately 100 kilometres square … In summer, the pool moves further onshore into the surface ocean layers off the southern tip of Eyre Peninsula where the nutrients and light catalyse high levels of primary production, the trigger of a highly productive marine food chain.

“Environmentally and economically, we cannot risk this resource. Without the nutrient enriched water, the eastern Great Australian Bight would be a marine desert.”

Both the BP and Bight Petroleum leases lie west of the nutrient pool. Prevailing winds and currents would carry spilt oil directly to the area within days.

In an April 21 submission to BP, Conservation Council of SA chief Tim Kelly made clear that his organisation opposed any exploration, drilling or production activity in the Bight. “We believe that the risks to the environment, people and economies… are just too high.”

The seismic testing alone, Kelly noted, could have serious effects on the region’s whale population. “The testing consists of a series of multiple blasts from air guns of up to 260 decibels, one every 10 seconds, continuously for months.

“Our understanding is that 180 decibels can cause discomfort to mammals, and sound of this magnitude travels through water for hundreds of kilometres.”

Australian Tuna Association spokesperson Brian Jeffriess told ABC News on May 28 that the testing could affect tuna migration routes. Each year tuna move from the Indian Ocean through the Bight to feed on vast schools of pilchards off Eyre Peninsula.

“Anything which affects the migratory pattern of the fish into the Bight… could affect our fishing,” he explained.

Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has promised that BP will “face stringent oversight and multiple layers of environmental control,” the January 29 Australian said.

The company’s drilling plans will need a go-ahead from Environment Minister Tony Burke, who administers the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Ferguson’s defensiveness is understandable. In August 2009 Australia’s worst-yet offshore oil spill, from the Montara oilfield in the Timor Sea, exposed the country’s system for regulating offshore drilling as effectively non-functional.

The federal government department had left the job of enforcing regulations with the states. Lacking the resources and expertise to ensure compliance, the states had then, on a “tick and flick” basis, allowed the oil firms to police themselves.

The result was predictable. Oil industry commentator Phil Hart wrote in a December 6 post on The Oil Drum—ANZ blog that the Montara operator, the Thai-owned firm PTTEPAA, had been “failing to meet the most basic requirements for safe drilling”.

The report issued the same month by the official Australian inquiry into the disaster was startlingly blunt: “In essence, the way that PTTEPAA operated the Montara Oilfield did not come within a ‘bull’s roar’ of sensible oilfield practice.”

Wikipedia says the oil slick resulting from the Montara spill covered 6000 square km of ocean. The blowout was finally capped, at the fifth attempt, after 74 days.

Ferguson has promised that the federal government would take over responsibility for regulating offshore petroleum activities under a new National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority.

This move is opposed by the Liberal government in WA, which “says it does not support federal plans to introduce a single national regulator”, ABC Darwin reported on May 25.

Oversight of the offshore oil and gas industry will no doubt now improve. But there is no sign that in issuing the new permits Ferguson has confronted the key question: in conditions as extreme as those of the Great Australian Bight, is safe operation even possible?

Big new finds by the oil industry can be immensely profitable, encouraging firms to operate at the utmost limits of their technology. Equipment failures are commonplace, and accidents are not rare.

BP, famously, has experience of wild weather in its North Sea oil and gas operations. But the North Sea is like a duckpond compared to the Southern Ocean, where powerful globe-circling winds create the world’s largest wave energy resource. The Deepwater Horizon and Montara spills took months to resolve in seas that were relatively slight.

Off Kangaroo Island, annual mean wave heights are close to three metres. Where is the assurance of capping a blow-out, at the fifth or even the 50th attempt?

That is the kind of question that oil industry chiefs and resource ministers, mesmerised by the gleam of billions in revenues, prefer not to contemplate.