Move over, Adani. There’s a new group of protesters in town, and they are as fanatical as the zealots using coal-fire-powered smartphones to mobilise opposition to a coal mine.
The project making this rapidly growing new group irate is a proposed exploratory well 400km off Ceduna in the Great Australian Bight, which will look for oil beneath 2km of water and 2.7km of rock.
Research last year by ACIL Allen for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association concluded that oil in the Great Australian Bight could produce up to six billion barrels by 2060 and create up to 5000 jobs a year, many of them in South Australia. This activity would increase Australia’s GDP by $6 billion to $19 billion per year. It would also give South Australia, which was hit by the demise of car manufacturing in 2017, the sort of boost Western Australia has received since the start of the resource boom.
The company proposing to explore part of this oil field is Equinor, the Norwegian state-owned oil producer. It drills about 40 exploratory wells around the world per year.
It made the mistake of sharing its 1500-page environmental plan with the public, the first time any company has done so in Australia. The response from the perpetually outraged has been to misinterpret a map of the area that would be affected by a spill, share it extensively on social media and invite people to send their objections to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, which is still assessing Equinor’s application. The illustration being shared looks scary enough:
Thankfully, it’s an illusion. It is based on Equinor’s map outlining all the areas that could be affected by any one of 100 scenarios.
The confusion began when Greenpeace tweeted the map, saying that a spill “could hit anywhere from South Australian to New South Wales”. Journalist Nick Carroll mistook this, instead saying on a surf website that Equinor “clearly” believes “something could go wrong”, and that “a worst-case spill would put oil on every surfable coast of Australia south of 30 degrees S.” In other words, the well has the potential to create a spill roughly 10 times the size of the spill from Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the biggest accident in history.
Had he read Equinor’s environmental plan, Carroll would have realised the Greenpeace tweet was deliberately vague. As Equinor explains, the map represents all the areas that would be affected in 100 different variations of a scenario in which all safety equipment fails and the leak continues at maximum flow for 100 days.
Even this is highly unlikely, Equinor says. “In case of a real oil spill, we would respond immediately. Also, the oil volumes are equivalent to the maximum possible flow from an unrestricted open hole. In practice, the hole would always have blockages caused by the drill pipe and blow-out preventer.”
It warrants repeating: the map does not represent the area affected by a single spill. Yet this bit of misinformation has inspired an astonishingly vitriolic pile-on. Jumping aboard the campaign to distribute various versions of this diagram have been the World Surf League (administrator of the pro surfing tour), surf company Patagonia, surf websites Swellnet, Coastalwatch and Stab, and a variety of famous surfers.
An open letter from a group of surf celebrities, including Mick Fanning and Taj Burrow, to Equinor says an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would be “catastrophic” and the “southern coastline of Australia would never be the same”. The chief slogans for the campaign are “Fight for the Bight” and “Big oil don’t surf”.
But big oil does surf. It produces the by-products from which surfboards and wetsuits are made. And of course it provides the fuel for the planes that take surfers, professional and hobbyist, to the world’s idyllic surf destinations. It even produced the fuel for the jet skis Burrow and Fanning were using to catch waves during the Cyclone Oma swell on the Gold Coast last week.
As pro surfers for decades, Burrow and Fanning have flown more times around the world than almost all other people in history except pilots. By joining this campaign, they are not telling oil miners to stop exploring for oil, which they rely on daily, just not to do it near a coastline where a misinformed scare campaign has infuriated some of their fans. They are also telling ordinary Australians who might have found work with Equinor to get jobs elsewhere, which is easy for them to say.
The rationale for the protest is that the Great Australian Bight is too deep and wild for oil exploration. But Equinor is using equipment that is industry standard, and includes a 100-tonne capping stack, a new precaution that became mandatory after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Equinor has oil wells in similar conditions to the Great Australian Bight off Norway and Canada.
The protesters also ignore the 14 exploratory wells that have been drilled in the Great Australian Bight since 1972, and the hundreds that have extracted oil from the nearby Bass Strait, which is in shallower water but still subject to similar ocean conditions, since 1965.
There are some signs that the famous surfers and journalists objecting to the project have not only misread the project’s risks but also some of their market. All the above surf websites have received comments from surfers pointing out the hypocrisy of people who use oil-based products objecting to oil mining, and questioning the protesters’ exaggerated fears of a spill. Then again, they are also not short of supportive comments agreeing with the risk of a “catastrophe”.
They are not alone. The Surf Coast Shire Council and Corangamite Shire Council, both in Victoria, have voted their disapproval of the Equinor project, despite it being about five times further away from them than the safely operating oil wells in the Bass Strait.
The next phase for Equinor is to have its application approved by NOPSEMA, whose remit is scientific, not emotional. As such, the objections from people whose fears are based on a misleading map should carry little weight. NOPSEMA primarily considers the safety of a project, not the misinformed fears of protesters. In the interests of surfers everywhere, it should give Equinor the tick of approval.
Fred Pawle is director of communications at the Menzies Report Centre.
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