Locals on the coast of South Australia, where BP hopes to begin exploratory drilling, are nervous about the risks posed to the ocean and the threat to their livelihood
September 12, 2016 — You wouldn’t ride a roller coaster if you weren’t certain that all the bolts were sound. Yet, as reported in the Guardian on Monday, that’s just the risk being being taken with an oil-rig headed for the Great Australian Bight.
Oil and gas multinational BP plans to drill in the near pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight, posing a terrible hazard to the future of the state. Now is the time to stop this threat before the fossil fuel industry takes hold.
BP wants to drill the Bight at depths even deeper than the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the same Deepwater Horizon that exploded in April 2010, killing 11 people and causing catastrophic damage to local communities and wildlife as the oil gushed out uncontrolled for almost three months.
Talking to people in South Australia this week, the concern is palpable. Looking out on the cold fresh waters of Encounter Bay, the seaside community of Victor Harbor is located around an hour’s drive south of Adelaide. The town’s way of life and economy revolve around the ocean.
In the course of an afternoon, I get some sense of just how wonderful Victor Harbor can be. South Australian King George whiting and chips for lunch at a pub is followed by a short drive up the coast where, at Bashem Beach, we happen to see a couple of southern right whales gambolling on the surface.
At one of the lookouts a middle-aged woman tells me with a broad grin that she lives in Adelaide but “keeps coming back to Victor” because it is the best place in the world. On the beach in the late afternoon a couple hold hands and kiss. Further along, a man sets up for some late afternoon fishing and makes his hopeful first cast into the waves.
Victor Harbor’s city council is evidently worried about the threat posed by BP’s plans. In his official submission to the Australian Senate, City of Victor Harbor CEO Graeme Maxwell warned that BP’s drilling plans represented a high risk to both the values and economy of the coastal community.
BP are keeping their own modelling secret, but analysis of oil spill trajectories in the Great Australian Bight commissioned by the Wilderness Society shows the impact not only extending across South Australia but to Victoria and Tasmania.
BP’s recklessness was a major cause of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In April 2014, Louisiana District Judge Carl Barbier found that their negligence was the single greatest reason for the disaster, showing “an extreme deviation from the standard of care and a conscious disregard of known risks”. According to Barbier, BP made “profit-driven decisions” during the drilling of the well that led to the deadly blowout.
Even if there is no catastrophic oil spill, South Australia and the world can’t afford the opening of new fossil fuel extraction if we are to have a chance of keeping global warming to the international target of no more than 1.5 degrees.
Climate change means BP’s Bight oil scheme is a threat to all of South Australia. For example the Climate Council has warned that the iconic Barossa Valley would be at risk from higher temperatures and lower rainfall caused by global warming.
Adding fiscal insult to environmental injury, it has been reported that BP may be able to deduct 150% of its planned $1bn Great Australian Bight deep-water drilling program from tax and royalty payments. The few immediate jobs that may eventuate are paltry compared to all that is at risk.
Former South Australian Premier Don Dunstan – whose memory and achievements still tower in our national public life – once cautioned against the dangers of “covertly subsidising the operations of industry while industry trumpets the virtues of a hands-off approach by government.” The warning is as current as ever.
A much better path than dangerous oil exploration is to capitalise on South Australia’s clean natural assets and build on the state’s growing reputation as a leader in solar and other renewable energy as the way to new jobs and community flourishing. In his submission to the Senate, Graeme Maxwell urged that “investment dollars should be redirected from our current over reliance upon fossil fuels to renewable energy options”.
BP hopes to begin exploratory drilling as early as the end of 2016. If the oil is there – and BP is confident that it is – then other oil and gas multinationals will likely join the rush.
South Australia faces a clear choice. In Victor Harbor one of the locals is particularly frank with me: “One mistake and the whole lot’s buggered,” he says.