Andrew Darby, 25 September 2015
A prized $120 million CSIRO ship built to study marine science has been hired out to international energy giants Chevron and BP to help them search for oil and gas in the Great Australian Bight.
Under the deal the ship Investigator is to spend two months working for the multinational corporations in the Southern Ocean, filling a period where it would have otherwise sat idle because of a lack of government funding.
The arrangement drew opposition from critics worried that the ship meant to vault Australia into the global marine science big league was being used for commercial, rather than institutional, research.
It also lands Investigator amid a controversy over the exploitation of the Bight’s waters, where a marine reserve straddles the leases.
CSIRO defended the arrangement as assisting Australian scientific excellence.
Despite Investigator’s array of marine scientific firepower, much of it directed at understanding the changing climate, the ship has been tied up in Hobart since July 1.
Though it is capable of 300 days’ operations each year, and CSIRO has said it could be filled four times over by institutional research requests, the government is funding the ship for only 180 days’ operations.
Under a multi-million dollar deal, Chevron will be the first to charter it commercially from 22 October.
CSIRO marine geoscientists will collect sea floor core and rock samples from a depth of up to 4500 metres, and biologists will work on marine life, using Investigator’s state-of-the-art equipment.
“The program will provide a better understanding of the (Ceduna) Basin’s geology and petroleum prospectivity, to reduce exploration risks and costs,” a government statement said.
“It will also improve understanding of the ecology and provide baseline data to inform environmental assessments.”
BP, which is further advanced than Chevron with plans for drilling in the Bight, will take over the charter in a December marine ecosystem study, CSIRO confirmed.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said it was clear the public’s ship was being used by the energy companies to reduce their commercial risks, or for potential green-washing.
“I would say the use of this boat to aid commercial hydrocarbon interests is certainly a most powerful signal in terms of the government’s approach to climate research,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.
Both energy companies’ exploration leases reach over a “multiple use” section of the Great Australian Bight Commonwealth Marine Reserve, according to The Wilderness Society.
TWS is campaigning against hydrocarbon exploitation in the Bight, and said it was alarming the companies could be using Investigator to research a pristine ocean for their own interests.
“I don’t think the people of Australia would be impressed with that,” said TWS South Australia director Peter Owen.
A CSIRO director of strategy, Toni Moate, said research work on the ship would be done by 35 scientists and support staff from CSIRO and partner institutions, and the data gathered would be made publicly available, as normal, after 12 months.
Ms Moate said CSIRO’s priority in maximising the use of Investigator was to conduct excellent research in the national interest.
“This will ensure Australia remains attractive as a frontier exploration area whilst maintaining Australian scientific expertise and capability,” she said.
In his first press conference as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull said Australians were not doing well at collaborations between primary scientific research and business.
“We’re actually the second worst in the OECD, so it is … a very, very important priority to make a change to that,” Mr Turnbull said.
Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.