Thousands paddle out in protest against oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight

Wilderness SA Directer Peter Owen was at the forefront of protests during Victor Harbor's Paddle Out.
Wilderness SA Directer Peter Owen was at the forefront of protests during Victor Harbor's Paddle Out.

Thousands of concerned individuals across the country, including up to 2000 in Victor Harbor alone, joined in the Paddle Out for the Bight event on Sunday morning, protesting Norwegian oil giant Equinor's plans to carry out deepwater oil-drilling in the Great Australian Bight. 

Protests took place across South Australia, in Perth, at Sydney’s iconic Manly Beach, in Byron Bay and Wollongong in NSW, in Torquay and Warrnambool in Victoria, and at Alexandra Headland on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Fifteen councils currently oppose drilling in the Bight, including Victor Harbor, Alexandrina, Yankalilla, and Onkaparinga. 

Fleurieu locals gathered with South Australians from around the state at the Victor Harbor Yacht Club on Sunday morning, staging a spectacular paddle out which drew national attention.

In attendance were Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie, Senator Rex Patrick, Wilderness SA Director Peter Owen, City of Victor Harbor Mayor Moira Jenkins and Bronwyn Lewis representing Alexandrina Council. 

Also in attendance at Victor Harbor was Mirning elder and 'whale songman' Bunna Lawrie, whose ancestors have looked after whales and the land and sea for 50,000 years.

"We don’t want oil and gas companies in our sea and our place of the whales," he said. 

"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."

Equinor has previously said it will not push through public resistance to drilling in the Bight, and calls continued at the Paddle Out for the acknowledgment of growing national concern over the project.

Mapping shows that an unprecedented worst-case oil spill in the Bight could impact the whole south coast of the continent, from Esperance in WA to north of Sydney

Wilderness Society South Australia Director Peter Owen said the thousands of people involved in the Paddle Out across the country backed the 15 councils who opposed oil drilling and represented more than half a million people that have voiced serious concerns and opposition to Bight oil drilling. 

“Equinor’s modelling shows 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 Esperance WA across to north of Sydney and even Tasmania," he said.

"Former Equinor Bight partner 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.

“Ultra-deepwater drilling is a relatively new, high-risk operation carried out mostly off the coast of Brazil and in the Gulf of Mexico, where it caused the world’s biggest oil spill accident, BP’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010, when 800 million litres of oil spewed into the gulf for 87 days.”

Fight for the Bight Port Fairy spokesman Ben Druitt said the Great Australian Bight waters are deeper, more treacherous and more remote than the Gulf of Mexico. 

"There is no established offshore oil and gas industry in South Australia to deal with a disaster that could hit the Victorian coast," he said.

"More than 6800 boats were involved in the Gulf clean-up but the South Australian Oyster Growers Association says that SA and neighbouring states probably have only 20 vessels that could operate safely in the waters where Equinor plans to drill.

“The Great Australian Bight is a unique, pristine wilderness marine environment, with 85 percent of its marine species found only in these waters. It’s a haven for 36 species of whales and dolphins, including the world’s most important nursery for the endangered Southern Right whale.”

Mr Owen said the community understands the magnitude of what’s at stake. 

"The Great Australian Bight is a completely inappropriate place for risky deep sea oil drilling, especially as we hurtle towards catastrophic climate change," he said.

"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."

Senator Rex Patrick, Wilderness SA Director Peter Owen, City of Victor Harbor Mayor Moira Jenkins and Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie all oppose drilling in the Great Australian Bight.

Senator Rex Patrick, Wilderness SA Director Peter Owen, City of Victor Harbor Mayor Moira Jenkins and Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie all oppose drilling in the Great Australian Bight.

Equinor responds 

Speaking to The Times in February, Equinor’s Country Manager Jone Stangeland said the organisation recognised a range of views regarding drilling in the Bight. 

"We recognise there is a range of views on exploration in the Bight," he said.

"We are committed to collaborating with communities and local industries so we can develop the best plan for our exploration project in the Great Australian Bight. Since we became the operator of the exploration permit, we have undertaken extensive engagement activities. We have held more than 130 meetings with local communities, councils, fishing industry associations and conservation groups to listen and learn about issues that are important in the region.

"During these meetings we have heard from many people who are keen to understand about our plans for safe operations as well as many people that are keen to understand the potential for jobs and other opportunities that a commercial discovery would bring.

"Equinor has a track record over more than four decades operating successfully and in coexistence with fisheries and tourism in Norway and around the world. We regularly drill in deep waters with comparable weather conditions to the Great Australian Bight without incident."

Safety concerns addressed 

The peak national body representing Australia’s oil and gas exploration and production industry, the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) has previously countered the claims of protesters, saying they support oil drilling and exploration in the Great Australian Bight and that “there is no reason South Australia cannot have a safe, sustainable and successful offshore petroleum industry.”

APPEA’s Director of External Affairs Matthew Doman said there are risks that need to be managed but the industry has a “long and strong track record of doing that.”

“The conditions in the Great Australian Bight are comparable to environments around the world (including offshore Canada and the Norwegian Sea) where the oil and gas industry has operated safely for decades,” said Mr Doman.

“Australian authorities only approve oil and gas activities when and where they can be conducted safely and with minimal environmental impact. 

“It is clearly essential that oil exploration and development is only undertaken by companies with experience and expertise to do so safely and sustainably, and that they have the financial strength to meet all obligations.”

“The oil and gas industry is committed to ensuring our operations are based on the best available science, and we are a major supporter of ongoing research on the marine environment.”

Successful oil exploration in the Great Australian Bight could see the creation of more than 2,000 jobs in South Australia and generate over $7 billion in average annual tax revenue to Federal and State governments over the next four decades, according to a study by ACIL Allen Consulting. 

Mr Doman said the benefits of this activity would be widely spread, including in key regional centres such as Port Lincoln and Ceduna, where onshore facilities and services are likely to be based.

“Successful development could also address a significant decline in Australia’s oil production over the last 10 years. We now import over 80% of the oil we use,” he said.

The APPEA said claims of environmental harm from offshore oil and gas activity are not borne out by “decades of safe, sustainable exploration and development in Australian waters.”

According to the body, fisheries in regions that host oil and gas activities continue to be some of the most productive in Australia.

“Likewise, there is no evidence of whales being harmed. In fact, whale populations are increasing significantly, including in areas with long-standing oil and gas operations,” said Mr Doman.

“We acknowledge there are many in the community with questions and concerns, and some who outright oppose all oil and gas development."