BP’s recent decision to pull out of a plan to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight has been dubbed “strategic” by the company’s exploration managing director, Claire Fitzpatrick.
Claims that the company withdrew to focus on short-term opportunities have been challenged by environmentalist groups, local councils and South Australian tourism operators. They claim the unpopularity of the plan and its rejection on environmental grounds by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA) multiple times, were the real reasons behind the sudden withdrawal.
This major win for the pristine marine environment off the South Australian coast has angered individuals with economic interests tied to the BP project. South Australian treasurer Tom Koutsantonis indicated that the company had let the South Australian community down, as it had already made financial commitments to companies and workers in the region. Opposition leader Steven Marshall commented on the desperate need for such projects to go ahead in a state lagging in economic growth.
Despite these complaints, many groups have branded the decision a “win for the community” as well as the environment. South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young and the Wilderness Society national director Lyndon Schneiders both emphasised the deep unpopularity of BP and its proposed project, and the strength of the dissenting voices in the South Australian community.
Passionate protests were held in Victor Harbor last year, calling for greater protection of the unique environments that make up the Great Australian Bight. The mayor of Kangaroo Island said the tourist industry was far more valuable to the state than oil and gas ventures with potentially hazardous implications for the area.
Unfortunately, despite BP’s withdrawal from the Bight, petroleum company Chevron, the world's fourth-largest publicly traded oil company, still has plans to drill during 2017–2018. This is despite the immense ecological risks and the diminishing role of fossil fuels in a world that increasingly favours renewable energy.
Chevron has been granted exploration permits EPP44 and EPP45 to drill an area of the Great Australian Bight that is surrounded by the Marine Mammal Protection Zone that shields the fundamental habitats of many species, including calving waters that are the most important environment in the world for southern right whales, which use the area as a nursery.
The Benthic Protection Zone within the Great Australian Bight Marine Park is of great ecological value, with an abundance of marine plant and animal life including endangered species such as great white sharks, southern bluefin tuna and humpback whales. More than 85% of the species found in the shallows of the Bight do not exist anywhere else in the world.
The Bight extends from Cape Pasley in Western Australia to Cape Catastrophe on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. It sports the longest southern-facing coastline in the world. Even a minor accident from drilling in the area surrounding the marine protection zones has the potential to devastate the ecology due to extreme conditions and strong currents in the region.
The potential for a drilling catastrophe is not remote; oil spills happen with frightening regularity, with BP being responsible for the worst oil spill in US history, the Deepwater Horizon event. The official government estimate of the spill was 4.9 million barrels. Extreme damage was done to marine creatures, marine environments, wetlands and estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico.
If such an event were to occur in the Great Australian Bight, the area would become heavily polluted and migration routes and habitats for vulnerable species would be severely compromised. The Wilderness Society predicts, using independent modelling projections, that an incident with as little as 10% of the flow of the Deepwater Horizon accident, during winter, would result in oil reaching Kangaroo Island in four months, and could reach as far as Tasmania.
The federal government is setting a precedent for supporting environmentally degrading fossil fuel projects with their decision to fund the Adani mega coalmine in central Queensland. That project will devastate the Great Barrier Reef, an ecosystem on its knees due to global warming, for which fossil fuels are largely responsible.
The past two cycles of extreme ocean warming in the northern and central reef zones has resulted in bleaching of more than 80% of coral, which has died in large sections. This has devastated marine biologists in the area, who are powerless to halt the death of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring ecosystems.
A major step towards protecting another critical marine environment was taken last year, in a landmark agreement between 24 countries and the European Union. For the first time, an international agreement was reached to label a 1.1 million square kilometre area of the Ross Sea around Antarctica as a Marine Reserve. This protection was agreed to on the basis of the ecological significance and importance of the Ross Sea.
The Great Australian Bight deserves similar status and protection. Jeff Henson, of Sea Shepherd, believes it should be World Heritage listed “for its whale calving places, its seal colonies, its island banks linked with thousands of pelicans, other sea birds, its great white sharks, dolphins and healthy food chain, undersea canyons, cliffs, beaches and Aboriginal heritage”.
The future of our oceans and our world depends on more international protection of our marine environments; a shift away from fossil fuels and potentially devastating and destructive practices like deep sea drilling, and towards clean energy solutions.