Why Our Entire Surf Community Needs to Fight Proposed Oil Drilling in the Great Australian Bight

Tony Butt

by on

Updated 723d ago

Norwegian oil company Equinor are threatening to drill for oil off the Great Australian Bight – one of the most pristine and surf-rich coastlines left on Earth.

The coast around the Bight contains literally hundreds of epic surf spots. From the immensely popular area around Torquay, across southwest Victoria and towards Adelaide, there are already dozens of setups.

Then from here to Port Lincoln and on to Cactus there are dozens more. Keep travelling west into the Nullarbor and things get sparse and access gets difficult, with much of the coast dominated by the Bunda cliffs, the world’s longest uninterrupted sea cliffs. There is good surf here as well, but conditions are pretty hardcore. Further west the coastline becomes more accessible, with stacks of spots all the way around the coast of southern WA.

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See: The beauty of South Australia

Year-round open-ocean wave heights in the Bight are close to the highest in the world, frequently exceeding 15 metres, so there’s no lack of swell. If you can handle the remoteness of the place; the extreme heat and flies in summer, and are not worried about sharks, this harsh and unspoilt coastline could be a surfing paradise.

The Bight also contains one of the world’s most unique and productive marine ecosystems, with 19 marine parks and several marine reserves. Around 85 per cent of the species found there are not found anywhere else on the planet.

Surfer and environmentalist Heath Joske has been living here for years: “I grew up on the north coast of NSW, and in my early 20s myself and a couple of mates would 'go bush' in the Great Australian Bight every summer for a few weeks. I met my wife on the second trip and after a couple of years together on the north coast we moved back to the Bight. I started working on a prawn trawler and bought property close to all our favourite beaches.
“There are no big department stores or fast food or cinemas so the people who live here are here for the outdoor lifestyle, mainly fishing or surfing or farming. Southern right whales come here to give birth and nurse their young. Dozens of sea lion colonies litter the coastline. The endless cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain and huge limestone bluffs are visually spectacular. It feels like one of the last wild places on Earth.”

Now, just in case you haven’t heard, a Norwegian oil company called Equinor (formerly Statoil) wants to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, 370 km offshore. The oil platform would be a floating one, with stabilizers to deal with the constant massive swells and storm-force winds. The ‘drill bit’ would be five or six kilometres long, first to reach the sea bed, 2,000 metres down, and then to reach the oil, another three to four kilometres below the bed.

Equinor assures us that all this is totally safe and there will never be a spill. But oil companies are notorious for lying and greenwashing. After all, their very business is destroying the environment.

Many independent experts disagree, including marine conservation biologist Professor Richard Steiner from the University of Alaska: “Given the extreme depths and uncertainties in oil reservoir characteristics involved, this should be considered a high-risk project. Regardless of the safeguards employed, the risk of a blowout and large oil spill is very real.

“I would respectfully advise that the risks of deep-water drilling in the Bight greatly outweigh potential benefits, and a no-drilling decision would be a wise course for a sustainable future for southern Australia.”

Originally, Equinor was in partnership with BP and Chevron, but both of those companies backed out. They did so for reasons that they haven’t made very clear. But BP was responsible for the biggest oil spill in history: the Deepwater Horizon. The Deepwater Horizon oil platform was located in the Gulf of Mexico, a shallower, less remote and much calmer location than the Great Australian Bight.

So, what if the unthinkable happened? If they went ahead with the project, and then there was a spill?

Well, according to several simulation models and calculations, including those done by BP and Equinor themselves, the oil would reach the coasts of southern WA, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, NSW and even New Zealand. In a worst-case scenario, the amount of oil spilled could exceed seven million barrels (about a million tonnes). That’s twice as much as the Deepwater Horizon.

If that happened, the ecosystem would be permanently affected. Hundreds of thousands of birds and fish would die, kelp ecosystems and other shoreline communities would be damaged, and you could say goodbye to thousands of whales, dolphins and other mammals. Some species would probably disappear forever.

People’s lives would be seriously affected. Reefs and beaches would be covered in oil, and surfing at all those hundreds of epic spots would be out of the question. Most of the cleaning up would probably be done by local communities.

Of course, according to Equinor, there won’t be a spill. But if there is one, everything will be alright: “In the highly unlikely event there is a spill, our priority will be to stop and contain it before it reaches shore. We are also working with state agencies along the coast to make sure a good shoreline response plan is in place.”

Forecast: Torquay

In other words, there definitely won’t be a spill, but there might be. And if there is one, it definitely won’t reach the shore, but it might do. And if it does, we’ll make sure other people clean it up.

Professor Steiner explains what would more likely happen in the event of a spill: “Once oil is spilled, the damage will be done regardless of response efforts. Spill response in the Bight would likely recover less than five per cent of the total spilled, particularly given the exposed, high energy environment of the offshore region. Chemical dispersants would at best be ineffective, but more likely would compound ecological harm to offshore waters. The oil industry knows all this, but seldom admits it.”

Surf activist Dave Rastovich has recently been on the case. He has been on regular visits down there to consult with the local communities and bring their ideas and concerns to the wider audience: “The last year and a half I’ve been going regularly to the remote areas of the Great Australian Bight to meet with small communities, towns with 200 people in them, coastal folk who are fired up about the issue of big oil companies wanting to drill off the coast there. I prefer to actually go there and meet the crew, get a feel for the issue and the people, work out how I can help.

“Right now, those people are terrified for their children’s future. If something like an oil spill was to happen on that amazing coast, it would be devastating. That for me is really powerful, meaningful and gives me the opportunity when I leave to speak on behalf of those people, or speak against a governing body or corporation that is going against the will of those people.”

As surfers, we are on the ‘front line’, closer to Nature and more likely to be affected than most other people; so we should understand better than anyone. Rasta puts it like this: “And there, perched on the vibrant edge of this continent, are surfers – surfers who know this wild space intimately, surfers who cross that edge and paddle out into the ocean pretty much every day. There is no group better qualified to be the spirited defenders of the coast.”

If we all get together and stop Equinor drilling in the Great Australian Bight, everyone will benefit; not just a small group of greedy businessmen.

So please put pressure on the company by submitting your comments HERE. The deadline is March 20. The site has some tips on what to put, but don’t worry if it still seems confusing. The most important thing is to put something on there. The more of us who do so, the greater chance we’ll have of saving the Bight.

Cover shot by Tom Pearsall