Inside Story

Fighting for the bight

A Norwegian company says it can drill safely in the Great Australian Bight. Scientists disagree.

Seumas Spark 25 May 2019 1745 words

“There’s magic there”: the Great Australian Bight from the Bunda Cliffs. Martin Helgemeir/Alamy

Two months ago, I had never heard the phrase “Fight for the Bight.” Now I seem to see it everywhere. Last week, as I walked past a shop near my home on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, there it was again on a poster in the window: Fight for the Bight.

The fight is about natural gas extraction in the Great Australian Bight. For several years, oil companies, including BP and Chevron, have signalled interest in drilling under the bight to confirm the existence of untold mineral riches. Equinor, a Norwegian oil and gas company, plans to begin exploratory drilling by 2021, pending final permission from the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, or NOPSEMA, a statutory Commonwealth agency.

Equinor’s Stromlo-1 well would be about 370 kilometres offshore, in some of the roughest seas in the world. Its isolation would make an oil spill hard, perhaps impossible, to contain. According to Equinor’s own worst-case modelling, a spill could spread over thousands of kilometres, west to Perth and as far east as the coast of New South Wales. In this scenario, Tasmania would be surrounded by oil.

To my embarrassment, I knew none of this until a recent trip across the country. In early March, having decided to act on an idea we had long talked about, my wife and I set off in a campervan with our two boys, nearly three and nearly one. “A really big adventure,” our eldest called it. We drove 10,000 kilometres in five weeks, Perth and back.

We got to Adelaide quickly, skipping over country where we had spent time before, then slowed down. Rather than head directly west from Port Augusta, we decided to turn south and mosey our way around the Eyre Peninsula. We spent our first night on the peninsula in Cleve, a quiet, pretty town about forty kilometres inland, but otherwise we kept to the coast: Tumby Bay, Port Lincoln, Coffin Bay, Elliston, Streaky Bay, Smoky Bay. The ocean supports many people in these towns, through fishing, oyster farming and tourism. And beyond its economic value, locals know its beauty. People we met on beaches and jetties welcomed us to the “west” and its beautiful azure waters.

The South Australian Tourism Commission has designated the road around the Eyre Peninsula part of its Seafood Frontier. For a few days we lived well on seafood fresh from the Great Australian Bight: fish at Streaky Bay, oysters at Coffin Bay and Smoky Bay. Along the coast we saw and met hundreds of grey nomads, many of whom had timed their trip to the Eyre Peninsula to coincide with the whiting run. They came with caravans and tinnies, ready to set up camp and spend days on the water fishing. At Elliston the sea looked so alluring that we went for a dip. The water was memorably clear and crisp. We had the beach to ourselves.

Everywhere, as we travelled around the Eyre Peninsula, we were implored to Fight for the Bight — posters at the bakeries, newsagents and pubs, stickers plastered to car bumpers. Signs urged people to hop on a surfboard, paddleboard or kayak and paddle out to join protests. We got the sense that the campaign had galvanised communities around the Eyre Peninsula and made protesters from people who had never protested before. It was inspiring. And the fight has spread across Australia: “paddle outs” have been held in every state.

The bight nurtures a wondrous marine environment. The New York Times reports that it has been called “Australia’s answer to the Galápagos,” its ecological value comparable to the Great Barrier Reef. About 85 per cent of its species are found nowhere else. Governments in Canberra and Adelaide know this. The Great Australian Bight Marine Park, covering over 45,000 square kilometres, is protected by South Australian and Commonwealth legislation.

Equinor says it can drill safely, the stock pledge of oil companies. Scientists disagree. The noise and reverberations caused by drilling will disrupt the delicate balance on which species depend. An oil spill would confirm the ecological catastrophe.

From the Eyre Peninsula we made our way along the bight coast to Penong, a town of about 200 on the South Australian edge of the Nullarbor. If you’re heading west, it’s the last stop for food, petrol and supplies before you venture on to that mighty, majestic plain. For travellers and truckies moving in the other direction, Penong is a place to refresh. Not all remote Australian towns feel welcoming. Penong does. There is a caravan park, school, roadhouse, pub and general store. And a windmill museum. On a bare patch of ground between the caravan park and the back of the roadhouse stand windmills of different sizes and ages. Among them is the Comet, the biggest windmill ever made and used in Australia. The sight of the windmills is surprisingly striking, especially when framed by the rising or setting sun.

About twenty kilometres down a dirt road from Penong is Cactus Beach. Since the 1960s, surfers in the know have come to ride its left and right breaks, some of the cleanest and most consistent to be found in Australia, or anywhere. Great white sharks cruise these waters, but the waves are so pure that few serious surfers are deterred. They don’t travel all the way to Cactus not to get wet. The limited number of camp sites in the dunes behind the beach are filled by surfers who stay for days, weeks or months.

Phil “Shirl” Laws and his wife Sharon run the Penong General Store and Comet Cafe. Shirl says that half of the town’s business, theirs included, comes from surfers. He worries about drilling in the bight and the effect an oil spill would have on Penong and other towns on the coast. A recent survey by the Australia Institute found that about seventy per cent of South Australians don’t want drilling in the bight. Shirl is more definitive: he knows nobody who is in favour of it.

The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association reckons that Equinor’s proposal might generate 1500 jobs over the next forty years. It isn’t much of a carrot given that the bight already supports many more people than that, and without the risks involved in drilling. Nor do bight locals want a vision of progress imposed on them by those who measure its value only in monetary terms. The locals we met want their bight left as they know it, beauty over money. “Big oil don’t surf” reads one campaign slogan. As Shirl and I were talking, two men, aged about twenty, came into the store for hamburgers. On their ute was a sticker: Fight for the Bight.

Liberal politician Rowan Ramsey is the federal member for Grey, which covers more than 92 per cent of South Australia: all of the state other than the densely populated southeast. In June 2017, in a statement expressing support for the plan to drill, he praised the record of Statoil (now Equinor) and said he looked forward to the company bringing its “skills” to the bight. Lately he has been more equivocal, noting that his interest is “jobs and people,” a version of the “jobs and growth” incantation that blinds politicians, and conservative politicians especially, to social and environmental concerns.

Shortly before the May federal election, the Ocean Elders, a group of eminent citizens from around the world, wrote an open letter to Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten imploring them to protect the bight. Shorten pledged that a Labor government would move quickly to investigate the likely effects of an oil spill. It was something, though hardly an iron commitment to fight.

The Coalition’s response was similarly underwhelming. Resources minister Matt Canavan declared that “a re-elected Liberal National government will commission an independent audit of NOPSEMA’s current consideration of exploration in the Great Australian Bight.” As the Guardian reported, the commitment was aimed at voters in the marginal, coastal electorates of Boothby in South Australia and Corangamite in Victoria, both of which would be affected by a major oil spill from the Stromlo-1 well. With the election gone, there is reason to doubt the Coalition government will keep its promise. In October last year, Canavan called for offshore oil exploration, including in the bight, to be made a “national priority.”

When we first dropped in at Sharon and Shirl’s store, on our way to Perth, a picture of a line of cliffs caught my eye. “That’s Bunda,” Shirl said, “two or three hours west of here.” For twenty-five years he had been a truckie: Melbourne–Perth–Melbourne. On his way across the Nullarbor he’d stop at Bunda, at the top of the bight, and look out to sea. Sometimes he’d see dolphins and sea lions frolicking in the water. Once a shark came through the swell. He told us where to pull off the Eyre Highway for the best views.

The next day we followed his directions and drove to a rest area 110 kilometres from the WA border. Five hundred metres or so off the highway is a dusty space to park, and from there a gravel walking path leads to the edge of the continent. I don’t remember seeing a sign on the highway to suggest a stop was worthwhile. If not for Shirl, we would have sped past.

The Bunda cliffs rise more than a hundred metres above the bight and stretch about 200 kilometres from western South Australia to the border with Western Australia. We were awestruck by their size and drama, and by the peace and space: in front of us the wild waters of the Southern Ocean and its many shades of blue, behind us a vast expanse of red dirt. To stand in what seemed like an endless wilderness was mesmerising. Part of the spectacle is that nothing tempers the landscape. The surging waters of the bight and the ancient limestone of the Nullarbor meet in brutal, beautiful contrast. We’ve travelled far and wide; no place has held us like Bunda.

NOPSEMA officials are set to rule on Equinor’s environmental plan by the end of May. Before making their decision, they should be made to stand on the Bunda cliffs. There’s magic there, says Shirl. “You feel different. Look to where the sea meets the horizon and you can see the curve of the Earth.” He knows no other place like it. •