• Drone footage of Bunda Cliffs in the Great Australian Bight. (Greenpeace Australia Pacific)Source: Greenpeace Australia Pacific
A Norwegian oil company plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight by the end of 2020 but must consult appropriately with Indigenous communities along the South Australian coast.
Brooke Fryer

21 Jun 2019 - 6:21 AM  UPDATED 21 Jun 2019 - 6:21 AM

An international oil company with a history of 239 oil spills has obtained an exploratory license to drill for oil reserves in the pristine marine environment of the Great Australian Bight. 

The Norwegian oil giant Equinor plans to drill a deepwater oil well in the Bight by early 2020, although the license to do so is dependent on approval from the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).  

The findings of that assessment are expected to be handed down in late June.  

Equinor, formerly known as Satoil, has had 239 reported oil spills according to their 2018 sustainability report – the most significant of those occurring in the Arctic waters near Norway in 2007 where 25,000 barrels of oil leaked into the ocean.  

However, Equinor’s country manager for Australia, Jone Stangeland pointed out none of these spills were "well incidents". 

"In our 47-year history, with thousands of wells drilled, we have never had oil spill incidents from a well," he said.

The proposal has sparked widespread concerns that the potential of an oil spill could have devastating impacts on marine life, fishing and tourism industries.

It is not the first time a company has had ambitions to extract oil from below the sea waters in the Bight, with international energy company Chevron and behemoth oil company BP both demonstrating interest in establishing a presence in the Bight on separate occasions, before later abandoning their plans.  

Chevron claimed they abandoned their mission in late 2017 because of the low oil prices at the time. 

Opponents to the Equinor plan say they are concerned that drilling in the Bight could result in a similar environmental catastrophe as the Deepwater Horizon industrial disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, considered the largest marine oil spill in history.  

750 million litres of oil spewed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days following an explosion on an oil rig around 70 kilometres off the coast of Louisiana. 

In 2017, Equinor took over the lease from BP to drill in the Bight. 

The missing piece in their environmental impact report  

Opposition groups to drilling in the Bight claim, the company's environmental impact report that was submitted to NOPSEMA showed a lack of consultation with Indigenous groups along the coast of South Australia.  

In the report, the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation (DPC-AAR) said Equinor should consider consulting with all coastal Indigenous groups in SA, and not just Native Title holders.

In response, Equinor said they are “progressing engagement with key coastal Aboriginal communities so they are informed about the activity”.  

But the DPC-AAR reminded the company that “Informing communities is different from consulting them" and said that Equinor's approach 'implies that the proposal will go ahead irrespective of the views of the Aboriginal communities". 

Despite all this, Equinor said it has attended 130 meetings with more than 60 organisations as well as meeting with Indigenous communities.  

“We have formally met with, or have plans to meet with, the boards of five South Australian Native Title claimants and holders, including the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation which includes the Yalata peoples,” said Equinor's  Mr Stangeland.  

But Mirning Edler Bunna Lawrie from the Nullarbor Plain along the Bight told NITV News this hasn’t been done.  

“They’ve done wrong to the Elders and disrespected us,” he said. “Our land means more than the weight of gold.” 

Last Month, Uncle Bunna traveled to Norway to campaign against Equinor’s plans for the Bight, joining Norway’s Indigenous Sami people, who were also campaigning against Equinor’s ongoing drilling in their waters.  

Representing the Great Australian Bight Alliance alongside Wilderness Society SA Director Peter Owen on their trip, Uncle Bunna said the Norweigan government has turned a blind eye to what is happening in Australia. 

“The [Norwegian] government to me is very ignorant and don’t care, even saying [that] they shouldn’t talk to Aboriginal people [and should] just go straight to the [Australian] government,” said Uncle Bunna.  

“When I got up to speak at Equinor headquarters... I said, ‘consultation is important but none of the Equinor people came to talk with the Mirning Elders that hold the knowledge and custodianship of that Country’. 

“I said, ‘you are not welcome in this country’ and they put their heads down in shame.”  

A senior campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Nathanial Pelle also said Equinor have refused to consider that Indigenous groups as "relevant persons".

"They think they don’t need to consult with indigenous groups," he told NITV News. "They have said they have met with Indigenous groups, although they don’t name that many,” he said.  

“We’ve met with representatives with five or six different Nations around the Bight.... and from what we are being told, Equinor has never had a proper conversation [with them].”  

The potential of environmental disasters has left Ceduna Elder Sue Haseldine from the far west coast of SA distressed that the company won't be able to undo the damage any oil spill could leave behind on her Country.  

“When I see land and oceans under threat, I’ve got to stand up and save it,” she said.    

“The stress is not good. Just the thought of what they are planning for our beautiful crystal Great Australian Bight... how can human greed put everybody and everything at risk,”  

Aunty Sue has since sent a letter to the company pleading for a reconsideration of the drilling plan. She told NITV News she is yet to receive a response.  

Alarming environmental impacts if things go wrong  

In November 2018, ABC News reported on a leaked draft environment plan which suggested oil could reach as far as Port Macquarie’s beaches on the mid north coast of New South Wales if a major spill were to occur in the Bight.  

Under the worst case possible, the plan showed that up to 10 grams of oil per square metre could wash up on Australia’s east coast.  

But ABC News reported Mr Stangleland said the Oil Pollution Emergency Plan –distributed only to state governments – was part of a larger unfinished plan in an “extremely unlikely worst-case event”.  

This week, Mr Stangeland told NITV News that Equinor would only go ahead drilling in the Bight if it was safe to do so.  

“If we believed there was any chance of an oil spill, we would not go ahead with this project,” he said.  

“We have drilled more than 65 deepwater wells over the last three years, and with our partners we have successfully drilled 75 exploration wells. All our science and experience tell us we can do this safely.”  

Greenpeace is just one of many organisations opposing plans to drill in the Bight.  

It said the plan provided to NOPSEMA by Equinor "definitely" isn't safe and would likely be rejected by the regulator on those grounds.  

“I think this is a place where people are prepared to draw a line and say ‘you can't take anymore’ so I think this is a campaign that is not going to go away, it’s very big,” said Greenpeace campaigner, Mr Pelle.

For Uncle Bunna, a spill disaster would devastate him and his culture, he said. 

“The whale to us is our family in our traditional custom: the whale sanctuary and the whale nursery is all part of... our stories,” he said.  

“The whale is a very important being on this planet. We believe the whale is the heartbeat of the ocean. 

“It is incredible that these people can destroy and kill innocent animals... all for money.”  

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