The approval of Equinor’s plan has been welcomed by the South Australian and federal governments as well as the energy sector, but environmental groups have described it as “madness”.
The decision from the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) is the second of four approvals Equinor requires to move ahead with the plan.
The oil drilling has been controversial among environmental groups and has sparked protests in South Australia.
“We are gobsmacked that NOPSEMA could approve Equinor’s plan that experts have slammed,” Wilderness Society South Australia director Peter Owen said.
Earlier this year a group of energy and natural resource experts, led by the University of Sydney, made a submission to NOPSEMA that Equinor’s “overconfidence” in its ability to prevent a major spill could lead to catastrophic environmental impacts.
“Throughout the environmental plan, Equinor has consistently made optimistic choices in order to convince the public and NOPSEMA that ‘it is safe’ to drill,” they wrote.
“However, we saw a similar style of overconfidence demonstrated in BP’s proposal to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to one of the world’s biggest oil spills in 2010.
“History has shown us that overconfidence precedes catastrophic failure in many spheres of engineering endeavour. No matter how many layers of defence there are between a hazard and an accident, accidents can and still do happen.”
But Equinor’s country manager for Australia, Jone Stangeland, told The Advertiser in November that the chemical would only be used if there were “shortfalls in the supply chain” of accepted dispersants.
NOPSEMA has made it a condition of approval that Equinor demonstrates its spill response equipment is appropriate before it drills.
“Equinor has obviously failed to satisfy the regulator of that yet,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific head of campaigns Jamie Hanson said.
Green groups have raised concerns about Equinor’s plans to use Corexit 9500 to deal with oil spills, a substance that was widely used in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Corexit 9500 was banned in Australia in 2012 after evidence came to light about its toxic effects on response workers and the environment.
James Cook University professor Jodie Rummer produced a report for Greenpeace about the dispersant, which had been shown to cause symptoms such as nausea, memory loss, nervous system damage and irritation to the skin, eyes, nose and throat in humans.
“Studies from the Deepwater Horizon spill show that dispersants mixed with oil are often more toxic to marine life than oil alone,” Prof Rummer said.
The Australia Institute also released a report this year that showed 27,000 jobs in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania would be put at risk if a catastrophic oil spill occurred.
“Equinor have already had 239 oil spills in their history and, according to their own modelling, a major incident in The Bight would cover thousands of kilometres of the Australian coastline,” The Australia Institute’s SA projects manager Noah Schultz-Byard said.
Greenpeace’s Jamie Hanson said Equinor could not be trusted to operate in the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight without the risk of incidents that could coat Australia’s much-loved beaches in black oil.
“This disastrous decision paves the way for an oil company that has a worsening safety record, and a history of accidents all over the world, to conduct dangerous, experimental drilling in Australia’s whale nursery in the Great Australian Bight,” he said.
Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society say they will continue to fight the proposal.
“The approval flies in the face of experts, communities, traditional owners, surfers, coastal families and the South Australian seafood industry who have all relentlessly campaigned against plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight for over five years,” Mr Hanson said.
The Wilderness Society said it was considering legal options to stop the well from going ahead.
“The fight for The Bight is one of the biggest environmental protests Australia has seen, and this approval will only further mobilise community opposition,” director Peter Owen said.
Equinor was first granted a petroleum title over areas in The Bight in 2011 and now has an accepted environment plan.
It must still have a well operations plan and a facility safety case approved before it can begin drilling its proposed Stromlo-1 well at a site about 400 kilometres off the SA coast in water more than 2.2km deep.
If approved, Equinor plans to begin work in late 2020 with the operations expected to last for 60 days.
Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan said The Bight project had the potential to open up a major new petroleum basin.
“In a continent as large as ours I hope we can find another oil and gas province to replace the Bass Strait,” he said.
Mr Jone Stangeland, said environmental approval was an important milestone for the drilling program.
“We have been preparing for safe operations for two-and-a-half years, holding over 400 meetings with more than 200 organisations across southern Australia,” he said.