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Surfers around the world have joined Mirning traditional owners and environmental activists in the fight against oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight. By Katherine Wilson.

Oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight

“There’s an unspoken agreement about parts of the ocean you don’t photograph or report,” says Sean Doherty, a surfer regarded as Australia’s foremost surfing journalist. “The bight is one of those raw and remote places.”

The Great Australian Bight holds pockets of monumental waves, says Doherty, but these are kept secret. “You’ll probably never see a photo of seven or eight of the breaks there. The really good breaks don’t get named,” he explains. “Surf culture has always been concerned that parts of the coast should remain underground.”

With the threat of oil exploration in these remote waters, however, old covenants are being reconsidered. Surfers, the Mirning traditional owners and coastal communities are now attempting to draw attention to the bight, where the government has granted the Norwegian oil giant Equinor a title to drill.

Last Saturday, about 20,000 surfers gathered in 50 beach locations for what Doherty calls “the biggest coastal environmental action in Australian history”. They were joined by surfers across the globe, who staged a collective paddle-out – surf culture’s memorial ritual – to champion the bight, one of the Earth’s last pristine marine ecosystems. A whale nursery and sea lion playground, the region also has the highest concentration of dolphins on the planet; 85 per cent of its marine species aren’t found anywhere else.

At sunrise on Saturday, on Victoria’s Bells Beach, another surfing idyll, Mirning elder Uncle Bunna Lawrie sang whale songs at a smoke ceremony. Later, about 3500 surfers gathered for paddle-outs at nearby Torquay.

“Whales are the ocean’s heartbeat,” Uncle Bunna said. “Whale song is about communication, respect and friendship. We call ourselves goonminyerra, or friendly-natured people, like the whale, always looking after one another. The whales are our family. If you threaten whale habitat, you threaten our habitat.”

Since the 1960s, small exploratory wells have been drilled around the bight. But at a total depth of about five kilometres, unprecedented in the bight’s tempestuous conditions, Equinor’s Stromlo-1 well poses extraordinary risks, according to marine scientists commissioned by Greenpeace to independently assess the project.

In a document leaked to media in November 2018, Equinor estimated oil spills in the bight could affect the Australian coastline as far as Port Macquarie, New South Wales. In the worst-case scenario, the area impacted could dwarf the Montara spill of a decade ago, which spread from Broome over the Timor Sea, destroying ecosystems and the livelihoods of about 15,000 seaweed farmers, who launched a class action that is still before the Federal Court of Australia.

Equinor spokesman Jone Stangeland told The Saturday Paper that spill risks “have been misrepresented” with “impossible scenarios”.

The company revised down its projections earlier this year, but environment groups argue that Australia’s rig-safety regulations remain lax by world standards, and oil companies have routinely downplayed the effects of drilling and overestimated their response capabilities.

In May, Uncle Bunna travelled with 500 surfers to Oslo’s icy waters for a solidarity paddle-out with Norway’s indigenous Sami people. There, he met Norwegians who held oil shares. “I told them: Your money is killing marine life,” he says. “They were in tears.”

At Equinor’s annual general meeting, Uncle Bunna spoke to stakeholders. “I told them my people have looked after that sea for 120,000 years. I said: You’re not welcome in the Great Australian Bight,” he recalls. “All their heads went down.”

Equinor’s plan for Stromlo-1 is currently being assessed by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). But the authority’s communications manager, Nick Page, says its regulatory powers cannot address many protesters’ concerns.

A spill risk is merely one concern. The impact of preliminary seismic oil surveys is another, as several university studies suggest these have already harmed the bight’s marine life.

NOPSEMA also has no powers to address the impact on the region’s fishing, aquaculture and tourism industries. Industry modelling pegs the economic risk of drilling in the region at $158 billion, with an estimated 10,000 jobs in jeopardy.

Bight drilling has “disastrous environment and economic implications,” business academics Sarah Duffy of Western Sydney University and Christopher Wright of Sydney University wrote in The Conversation. They believe politicians are gambling “on a fossil fuel bet with no clear advantages and a significant downside risk”.

In April, a national poll by The Australia Institute found that most Australians, regardless of party loyalty, oppose bight drilling. The Fight for the Bight campaign has amassed 65,000 signatures, but Doherty says it “struggles to get traction in mainstream newspapers because of the Murdocracy. And because the bight’s out of the national consciousness.”

Had Equinor applied to drill in the Great Barrier Reef, he says, there’d be more sound and fury.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young is among those urging Norwegian politicians to take notice, as Equinor is two-thirds state-owned. Norway faces increasing international pressure to redress the contradiction between its ongoing investment in oil drilling and its decision in June to divest from fossil fuels.

“The surf culture in Norway has backed us the whole way,” says Doherty. “We’ve also had huge traction in America. The scale of these paddle-outs is unprecedented.” The World Surf League and 28 of its champions – including Steph Gilmore, Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning and Taj Burrow – have mobilised support.

Surfers are transitioning away from petroleum products in protest, and retail chain Patagonia launched a Big Oil Don’t Surf campaign against bight drilling. In response, Liberal Party think tank the Menzies Research Centre published a Big Oil Do Surf counter-campaign in March, written by The Australian’s surf writer Fred Pawle, who calls protesters “as fanatical as the zealots using coal-fire-powered smartphones to mobilise opposition to a coal mine”. This coincided with lobby group Energy Information Australia’s campaign depicting surfers as petroleum-dependent hypocrites.

In August, when Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, “the surfing senator”, attempted to establish a parliamentary inquiry into the impacts of Equinor’s surveys, Liberal senate president Scott Ryan withdrew permission for him to speak. “I won’t,” fumed Whish-Wilson, “be gagged by this government.”

The Greens subsequently secured an inquiry, but a perception of secrecy remains. When NOPSEMA announced transparency reforms effective from April 25, Equinor filed a revised environment plan on April 23, safeguarding it from public scrutiny.

In parliamentary debates, NOPSEMA is invoked as the definitive authority, but its powers are bound by a thicket of legislation, according to Nick Page. “It’s an extremely convoluted regime,” he said. Some regulatory requirements have forced it to refuse freedom of information requests for bight drilling data on the grounds of “the likelihood of opposition/protest groups using the information to oppose all drilling activities in the Great Australian Bight”.

NOPSEMA doesn’t tend to reject applicants, but its repeated demands for resubmitted plans from Equinor have drawn out the process. There is no time line for ultimate approval, but November 29 was the most recent deadline for Equinor.

“It was at this stage in the regulatory process that previous applicants BP pulled out,” says Peter Owen, the Wilderness Society’s South Australian director.

According to Page, if Equinor is approved, “the only ministerial intervention possible is to withdraw title”.

Native title claims are also possible. Meanwhile, politicians are nervous about the lack of social licence for bight drilling.

During the federal election, major party candidates rushed to coastal Corangamite, Victoria’s most marginal seat, where independent candidate Damien Cole was running a popular campaign against drilling.

Liberal member Sarah Henderson donned a wetsuit, purchased a new blue Gboard in Torquay and photobombed Cole’s paddle-out, announcing a last-ditch scientific audit of Equinor’s plans.

Chief scientist Alan Finkel added an aura of scientific authority to the audit, but its scope included only NOPSEMA’s existing procedures – no scientific review. “Dr Finkel’s inquiry was set up as a political fix,” says Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick. “The chief scientist was tasked to look at the wrong question.”

Doherty says the audit was “a sham” and Labor was “a whisker away” from protecting the bight to secure votes. Bill Shorten reportedly considered declaring it a World Heritage site.

In parliament, major parties continue to discuss “all stakeholders”, implying offshore profits figure in Australia’s democratic calculus. Oil giants remain notorious tax dodgers, and while Resources Minister Matt Canavan reportedly said some oil would be refined in Australia, Equinor denies this.

The company says it has consulted traditional owners; Uncle Bunna says it hasn’t. But he’s meeting with Australian and Norwegian politicians, and native title lawyers.

“We’re trying to teach non-Indigenous people about our duties and responsibilities to nature. That sea is pristine today because of our people’s care over many thousands of years. My father was a keeper; my grandfather was a keeper; this is my job as its guardian.

“We don’t want the government’s problem to be our problem. We’ve beaten off BP, we’ve beaten off Chevron, we’ve just got to beat off Equinor now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Bight unseen". Subscribe here.

Katherine Wilson
is a journalist and author. Her latest book is Tinkering: Australians Reinvent DIY Culture.