Graham Lloyd, 9 October 2015

A catastrophic failure of BP’s proposed $1 billion deep-sea oil drilling program in the Great Australian Bight could affect important whale nurseries and shut fishing grounds as far away as the Tasman Sea, according to independent modelling.

BP has lodged an environmental plan with Australia’s offshore oil and gas authority, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, seeking approval to drill four exploration wells in the bight in areas covered by commonwealth marine reserves.

BP was responsible for the world’s biggest oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010, while it was drilling an exploration well in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the Wilderness Society, the Great Australian Bight waters are far more treacherous and more remote than the Gulf of Mexico.

In its application, BP said an oil spill from a deepwater well blowout would last only 35 days.

However, environment groups say the Gulf of Mexico spill lasted 87 days, and BP’s oil-well containment response system for the Australian program would be in Houston, on the other side of the world. Equipment to cap a well blowout might have to come from Norway or Singapore.

Independent modelling by ocean scientist Laurent Lebreton for the Wilderness Society said a well failure could affect all of southern Australia’s coast.

It said a spill could result in the closure of fisheries in the Great Australian Bight, Bass Strait and even the Tasman Sea.

In summer, a low-flow spill had an 80 per cent chance of reaching Western Australia’s Twilight Marine Reserve within four months. A Gulf-scale spill in winter could reach as far as Sydney and New Zealand, the modelling found.

“An oil spill in the Great Australian Bight from a deep-sea well blowout would be a disaster for fisheries, tourism and marine life,” said Wilderness Society South Australia director Peter Owen.

“A spill would be devas­tating for South Australia’s $442 million fishing industry and its tourism industries in coastal regions, worth more than ­$1 billion.”

BP said the proposed drilling area has water depths of about 1000m to 2500m. At the closest point, the proposed drilling area is about 400km west of Port Lincoln and 300km southwest of ­Ceduna in South Australia.

The drilling is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2016-17, with each of four wells taking between 45 and 170 days to drill.

According to BP’s modelling, “in a worst-case scenario (a loss of control of the well resulting in uncontrolled flow of petroleum into the ocean), oil would take several weeks to reach shore and the ­direction in which it could drift varies due to seasonal differences in current and wind direction”.

It said it had commissioned the Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre to do a detailed analysis of the southern coastline and to ­establish tactical response plans.

The bight’s pristine waters boasts the world’s most significant southern right whale nursery as well as many humpback, sperm, blue and beak whales.

The bight also houses Australia’s most important sea lion nursery and supports orcas, great white sharks, important fisheries and birds such as the albatross and the white-bellied sea eagle.

NOPSEMA has one month to address BP’s application.

Extracted in full from The Australian.