The battle against Norwegian Big Oil in the the Great Australian Bight continues
The fight moves to home turf as protesters arrive in Oslo
Words: Matt Pearce
In December 2018, while in Torquay, Australia, I met up with a group of surfers and staff from Patagonia Australia to learn more about the fight to prevent Norwegian company Equinor from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight.
Shortly after, in early 2019, a series of protests fired up across Australia as people from around the country voiced their opposition to the proposed drilling. Last week, the battle intensified as protesters arrived in Norway’s capital to make their voices heard in Equinor’s hometown of Oslo. It’s probably safe to say that they don’t see many paddle outs in Oslo, but it was the latest development in the ongoing fight to stop what could become, if left unchecked, one of the single worst environmental disasters of our time.
Where is the Great Australian Bight?
The Great Australian Bight stretches 720 miles / 1,160 kilometres along Australia’s southern coast. Facing one of the wildest stretches of ocean in the world, it’s battered by Antarctic storms that blow up from the southernmost latitudes of our planet. With wind, waves and plenty of space, it sounds like a kitesurfer’s dream scenario!
Shred potential aside, much of the coastline is wild and remote and it’s home to one of the last pristine marine environments on Earth. 85% of the species that live in the Bight are unique to the area, so who’d have thought drilling for oil there would be a good idea?
Well, apparently the Federal Government of Australia do. In 2017, they signed over exploratory contracts to large multinationals, including the 67% Norwegian state-owned Equinor who were previously called ‘Statoil’ – a name they changed earlier this year due to the obvious connotations it brought up around ‘the state’ and..erm..oil.
Many Australian surfers, kiters and environmental groups are extremely concerned about plans to drill in the Bight because of the huge risk that oil exploration poses to the region. To reach the oil, companies would have to bore down two kilometres into the seabed, which itself is two kilometres below some of the roughest seas on earth. At present, Australian drilling firms don’t have the capacity or ability to extract oil in conditions like that, so potential for a major spill is massive.
Not in our backyard!
Equinor recently released their environmental plan which included a risk assessment and an outline of how they would respond should a spill happen. Critics now believe they’re placing far less importance on safety precautions than they would be if they were drilling closer to home.
In fact, last month Equinor’s plans to drill for oil in the Norwegian Lofoten Islands were effectively shelved due to the threat it would pose to such a crucial area of natural beauty. It seems the risk of massive environmental destruction is a little less off-putting though if it’s not happening on Norway’s own doorstep.
This is perhaps due to the fact that Australia is far enough way to be ‘out of sight and out of mind’ but also because Norway is, per capita, one of the world’s richest countries due to the massive wealth they began accumulating when they tapped into their North Sea oil reserves in the 1960s. Oil and gas sectors still make up the biggest chunk of Norway’s industrial activity and account for more than half of its exports.
Although Norway was one of the first countries to sign up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, the country owes its impressive infrastructure, public services, benefits and pension system to oil. It is an uncomfortable truth for some Norwegians and, just last month, Crown Prince Haakon was confronted a couple of times by demonstrating climate change protesters on a recent trip to the South Pacific Islands – a region seriously under threat from climate change.
In the face of growing condemnation from the Norwegian public and pressure mounting up from international conservation bodies, Equinor and Norway’s government are still keen to press ahead with drilling off Australia’s southern coast though.
What’s at stake?
Small communities and busy fishing and tourism industries throughout the Bight rely on a clean ocean ecosystem for survival as do a number of marine animals. The Australian sea lion, the southern right whale and bluefin tuna are just some of the indigenous species that would be devastated in the event of an accident.
A spill could potentially cover the entire Bight and Tasmania, before making its way round to NSW and even New Zealand. The financial implications would also be huge for Australia’s surf industry, which alone is worth over AUD $1 billion annually. Mick Fanning is just one of surfing’s high profile athletes to join the fight.
Incredibly, BP were awarded a contract to drill in the Bight only a year after their Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, which was the worst spill in history, so it’s hard to believe that the Australian Government has really given this issue the due diligence it deserves.
However, BP along with Exxon and Chevron has since abandoned plans to drill in the Bight, but Equinor have a lot of money invested in the project and they aren’t willing to walk away from it without a fight.
Despite all protestations and condemnations from around the world, Jone Stangeland, chief of Australian operations for Equinor, is resolute about his company’s plans. In a recent interview with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) he said:
“We have delivered an environmental plan that the authorities will now handle, and we’re moving forward with our plans to start drilling at the end of 2020.”
The Australian Government is also reluctant to stop drilling in the Bight, despite nationwide protests at home, because of the economic benefits they hope to capitalise on should drilling get underway. They’ve also argued that it might lead to an uptick in employment in some coastal towns that surround the Bight, but detractors of the government believe that that’s a shortsighted view and have pointed to how some mining communities across Australia became ‘ghost towns’ once mineral wealth was depleted and mines closed down. It seems some of the decision makers within the administration have short memories.
So, that means, the fight is on to stop it before it starts. The Wilderness Society, Patagonia and Sea Shepherd are all campaigning hard to keep ‘Big Oil’ out of the Bight while The Great Australian Bight Alliance is unifying local communities to help oppose it while taking the fight to Equinor’s front door at home in Norway.
The pressure on Equinor and the Norwegian Government is intensifying. You can be a part of the growing voice.