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Risking it all – BP and the Great Australian Bight

This week a Senate inquiry was announced to investigate BP’s proposal to search for oil in the Great Australian Bight off South Australia.

The oil giant wants to drill four deep-water exploration wells in the ocean floor about 300 kilometres south west of Ceduna, believing the stocks to be of global significance.

Last November, BP’s first application was rejected by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority (NOPSEMA) for failing to meet environmental requirements. But NOPSEMA has given BP the opportunity to submit another application once it has worked on its environmental plan.

BP is currently preparing its second application so the Senate inquiry is good timing for the alliance of conservation and tourism groups campaigning to see the proposal rejected outright.

BP’s proposal to drill for oil under the ocean has major implications for the whole southern coast. Modelling by the Wilderness Society has shown that an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would devastate the tourism and fishing industries in southern Australia, impacting most of the southern coastline.

The Great Australian Bight

The Great Australian Bight stretches along 1,160 kilometres of coastline, from pristine beaches to soaring cliffs across four States. It’s home to globally significant nurseries for the endangered southern right whale and Australian sea lion, and a foraging ground for blue whales. 85% of known marine species in the Bight are found nowhere else in the world making it a truly unique marine habitat.

“The Bight is one of the most significant whale nurseries in the world, it’s a marine wilderness that’s never been industrialised,” said Peter Owen, director of the Wilderness Society’s South Australia branch.

The Great Southern Bight also supports a huge commercial fishing and tourism industry, both of which rely on the pristine environment. The industries employ over 10,000 in South Australia and are worth about $1.6 billion to the economy.  

Seismic Testing

A key issue which has been raised is the seismic blasting which BP would perform in their initial search for oil.

Seismic testing is a controversial method of searching for oil and gas reserves using sound blasts. These surveys involve low-frequency, high-intensity sound pulses every few seconds, 24 hours a day, over a number of months which can travel for thousands of kilometres.

There is ongoing concern that this method of exploration could be harmful to marine mammals with whales, dolphins, sea turtles and commercial fish the key species set to be impacted by seismic blasts.

In 2014 the US Government released their findings in an Environmental Impact Statement. It found that the impact for marine mammals could be “moderate” with risks of physical injury and death, strandings, disruption to migration, feeding, reproduction, communication or other behaviours caused by the stress of seismic noise.

BP’s track record

Given BP’s appalling environmental track record it’s absurd that the proposal is being considered at all.

We all remember the images from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster which crippled communities, destroyed ecosystems across the Gulf of Mexico, and killed 11 people. This worst marine oil spill in history occurred only 6 years ago in 2010.

Millions of barrels of oil pumped out from the underwater well and could not be curbed for 87 days.

BP is facing a Mexican class action lawsuit over the Deepwater Horizon spill after failing to pay compensation to Mexico for the massive clean up bills following the disaster. Hundreds of coastal communities who rely on fishing and tourism saw their livelihoods destroyed, a legacy which continues.

BP affirms that any leak in the Great Australian Bight could be controlled within 35 days, despite internal documents revealing that equipment would need to be imported from Singapore and Houston to control the leak.

In 2006, BP pipelines spilled over 200,000 gallons of crude oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The disaster was caused by BP’s failure to properly maintain its pipelines as well as a failure to act on alarms indicating the pipes were leaking.

BP also has a shady history with the law. US investigators found that over a period of 5 years, BP admitted to breaking US environmental and safety laws, paying $373 million in fines to avoid prosecution.

BP’s abysmal track record far outweighs other oil companies operating in the US with its refineries in Texas and Ohio accounting for 97% of violations handed out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These violations are handed out when a company shows “intentional disregard for the requirements of the [law], or showed plain indifference to employee safety and health.

Environmental track record aside, BP is in serious financial trouble as economies move away from fossil fuel. Earlier this month BP recorded record losses of $6.5 billion and shed 7,000 jobs globally. King Oil is dying and won’t return.

Risking it all

The fossil fuel industry believes it can safely operate in the region. But given that only 6 years ago BP was responsible for the worst marine oil spill in history, should we really be trusting them?

The ability of the regulatory body NOPSEMA has been called into question with Senator Nick Xenophon arguing that a proposal on such scale is a matter for the Department for the Environment. There is also a question of impartiality. NOPSEMA chairman Keith Spence spent over 30 years in the oil and gas industry and many of the board have ties to the fossil fuel industry. There are no representatives from conservation or environmental NGOs which is of great concern.

BP believes that the risk of a disaster, and any oil reaching the coast is “relatively low”. Is that a risk we really want to take?

This article was published in the Australian Independent Media Network on February 28th 2016.

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