Angela Macdonald-Smith, 15 October 2015

Controversial plans by oil major BP to drill for oil far off South Australia have hit a fresh wave of opposition after research commissioned by the Wilderness Society found that even a modest oil spill in the region would devastate fisheries and marine life, affecting much of the coast from Western Australia as far east as Victoria and Tasmania.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon described the government approvals process for the drilling as “flawed”. He attacked the “one-stop-shop” arrangement that gives the national offshore petroleum regulatory body NOPSEMA oversight of the work, which is due to start late next year.

“We need to have an appropriate risk assessment – there hasn’t been that risk assessment,” the Senator said in Canberra on Wednesday.

“There needs to be a proper process for approval for this: leaving it to one authority where there doesn’t seem to be any appropriate oversight by the Parliament, by the minister, and just outsourcing that authority to allow someone to drill in the Great Australian Bight I think shows a flaw in the architecture of our environmental protection legislation.”

Senator Xenophon said he would introduce a bill early next year that would provide the federal Environment Minister with ultimate authority for granting exploration and production drilling permission in the Great Australian Bight.

BP’s four-well campaign would test what is widely seen as one of the few remaining untested offshore provinces worldwide that have the potential to hold billions of barrels of crude oil. But the oil major’s drilling record, specifically the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, has heightened concerns among environmental and community groups about the potential damage from a similar accident during the Australian exploration campaign.

The fatal Deepwater Horizon accident caused about 800 million litres of oil to spew into the Gulf of Mexico in the 87 days it took for BP to plug the leak. Handling a spill in the Bight would be much more difficult because of the rough, remote waters and the lack of oil services and rescue equipment in the region.

BP says it believes it could cap a well in the Bight within 35 days in the “highly unlikely” event of a loss of control. In that worst-case scenario the probability of any oil reaching the coast was “relatively low”, it said in its referral to the environment department.

Spill could reach as far as Sydney

Speaking at Senator Xenophon’s media conference in Canberra, Mirning traditional owner and whale songman Bunna Lawrie said he could “not allow BP to mine oil in the Great Australian Bight”, pointing to the potential poisoning of sea and land by any oil spill.

“The Great Australian Bight is the greatest whale nursery on this planet,” Mr Lawrie said. “You will never find another great whale story like this that we have in the Great Australian Bight. The ocean and the earth sustain all living life. If we let BP go and then destroy that, all that is dead, destroyed, will never return.”

Modelling by ocean scientist Laurent Lebreton, carried out for the Wilderness Society, studied 1000 spills, covering four different scenarios in summer and winter conditions. It found that a spill of 5000 barrels a day, one-tenth of the leak at Deepwater Horizon, could have an impact from Western Australia across to Victoria and around Tasmania.

A “Gulf-scale” spill in winter could reach as far as Sydney and New Zealand.

BP lodged an application to the environment department for approval for the drilling in May 2013, after which the government created its “one-stop-shop” system and passed responsibility for examining environmental protection for offshore work to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the work in principle, subject to the acceptance of the environment plan by NOPSEMA.

BP lodged an application to NOPSEMA on October 1 and the Authority has 30 days to make a decision.

Senator Xenophon said it appeared to be “an accident of history” that NOPSEMA has no ministerial oversight for decisions as important as the Bight drilling, an anomaly he intended to fix.

A spokesman for the oil industry called for the regulator to be left to do its work without political interference.

Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association chief executive Malcolm Roberts said: “NOPSEMA has all the required powers to assess the potential risks involved in offshore exploration.

“There are sound reasons why it has been a bipartisan principle for many years that environmental assessments are conducted at arm’s length from ministers. This distance ensures a rigorous science-based assessment and consistent decision-making. It gives all parties an opportunity to present their views and the confidence that applications are considered solely on their merits.”

Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.