Hundreds unite against drilling in Great Australian Bight

A protest against drilling in the Great Australian Bight, in Sempaphore, SA, on May 19. Photo: Bill Doyle

Hundreds of people linked hands on the shores of Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Newcastle and many other coastal towns across Australia on May 19 to call on Norwegian oil giant Statoil-Equinor to drop its plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight.

The event was organised by the Great Australian Bight Alliance, a convergence of 13 conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, Sea Shepherd Australia, Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, Australian Marine Conservation Society, Conservation Council South Australia and First Nations Mirning and Kokatha elders.

The event culminated a week that began with the government releasing 21 new acreages that petroleum companies will be able to bid for across six basins off the coasts of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, and the Ashmore and Cartier Islands.

The government is dividing the new titles into separate bidding rounds over the next 10 months. Bids for the acreage in the Bight would not close until next year. The acreage includes one of the permits that BP cancelled after it abandoned its plans for oil and gas drilling in the Bight in 2016. Its remaining two permits were sold to Statoil.

Federal resources minister Matt Canavan announced the acreage release on May 15 as local government, tourism and fishing industry representatives, Traditional Owners and conservationists staged a mock oil spill outside the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association’s annual conference in Adelaide, to tell them oil rigs are not welcome in the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight.

The same day, Kangaroo Island mayor Peter Clements spoke at Statoil’s annual general meeting in Norway to highlight community opposition to the project. He read a letter from Ceduna indigenous leader Sue Coleman-Haseldine, which was co-signed by Norwegian First Nations leader Beaska Niillas, head of the Norwegian Saami Association.

“We write on behalf of people around the world who are fighting to protect their Country, livelihoods, and water from dangerous oil drilling and climate change,” the letter said.

“Consent to drill the Bight has been neither sought nor given. Together, we ask that Statoil abandon their plans to pursue risky deepwater oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight. Statoil must respect the Indigenous custodians of the land and sea from whom you wish to extract oil and gas.

Clements told the AGM: “Their opposition is just the beginning — hundreds of thousands of people will not rest until the threat of oil drilling in the Bight has been seen off once and for all.”

Greenpeace Australia-Pacific senior campaigner Nathaniel Pelle said any company that plans new exploration and drilling will face fierce opposition from local councils, the fishing industry, tourism operators and green groups.

“BP and Chevron have left. Statoil, if it persists, is going to face a fight from all stakeholders and any company that chose to bid on any new acreage in the Great Australian Bight is going to face the same opposition.”

About 500 people attended the biggest event in Adelaide at Semaphore Beach. Speakers there included Sea Shepherd Australia managing director Jeff Hansen, Mirning elder Bunna Lawrie and Wilderness Society South Australia director Peter Owen.

Hansen said: “Modelling showed that an oil spill from an ultra-deepwater well blowout in the Great Australian Bight could impact anywhere along all of southern Australia’s coast, from Western Australia right across to NSW and Tasmania. BP’s modelling showed a spill from its proposed Stromlo-1 well could hit Adelaide in 20 days and Port Lincoln and Kangaroo Island in 15 days.

“The Bight is a unique, pristine marine environment, with 85% of its marine species found only in these waters. The Bight is a haven for 36 species of whales and dolphins, including the world’s most important nursery for the endangered southern right whale. The Bight is Australia’s most important sea lion nursery and supports seals, orcas, giant cuttlefish, great white sharks and some of Australia’s most important fisheries.”

Lawrie, an elder of the Traditional Owners of the Bight, the Mirning people, said: “My ancestors and I have looked after the whale, the land and the sea for 50,000 years. We don’t want oil and gas companies in our sea and our place of the whales. We don’t want pollution causing destruction and poisoning our sea and land.

“I cannot allow oil and gas companies to drill in the Great Australian Bight. As a Traditional Owner, I do not want my home, my tradition, destroyed and lost forever.”

Owen said: “The pristine, treacherous waters of the Great Australian Bight are a completely inappropriate place for risky deep sea oil drilling, especially as we hurtle towards catastrophic climate change.

“Actively pushing to expand the fossil fuel industry is the height of irresponsibility and not an option if we are to have any chance of providing our children with a liveable climate. It’s madness that the Turnbull government is pushing oil and gas exploration in the Great Australian Bight when there is massive community opposition to it.

“Governments must represent the interests of the people they are elected to govern for, not damaging fossil fuel companies. There is no social licence for oil and gas exploration in the Bight.”