Federal offshore petroleum regulator announces approval as environmental groups signal likely legal challenge
The Norwegian energy giant Equinor has been granted environment approval for its controversial bid to drill to explore for oil in the Great Australian Bight.
The decision, announced by the federal offshore petroleum regulator on Wednesday, means Equinor has cleared the second, and most significant, of four regulatory hurdles it needs to pass before it can start drilling.
Environment groups immediately flagged a likely legal challenge to the decision by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, known as Nopsema.
The company says its plan shows drilling in waters more than 2km off the South Australian coast can be done safely. Opponents say Equinor has failed to properly consult with affected groups, the bight is a unique marine environment that includes the world’s most important nursery for the endangered southern right whale and rough seas make the proposed site a risky place to drill.
Nopsema said it had approved the plan after a rigorous assessment that took almost eight months. Equinor still needs a well operations plan and a facility safety case approved before it can begin drilling.
Equinor said Nopsema’s decision was an important milestone. Its Australian manager, Jone Stangeland, said the company had been preparing its proposal for two-and-a-half years, holding more than 400 meetings with community and other organisations.
The Wilderness Society said the regulator had ignored the concerns of scientists, coastal councils, traditional owners and environmental groups, and the decision would further mobilise community opposition.
Peter Owen, the Wilderness Society’s South Australia director, said the group was “gobsmacked” by the decision. He said tens of thousands of people had joined a “fight for the bight” campaign against the development.
“Opening up a new high-risk frontier oil field when we are hurtling towards catastrophic climate change is madness,” Owen said. “We will now be looking at our legal options to protect Australians from this risky and unwanted drilling.”
Equinor was first granted a petroleum title over areas in the bight in 2011. The proposed Stromlo-1 well site is in water more than 2.2km deep nearly 400km off the South Australian coast.
An analysis based on an amalgamation of 100 oil spill simulations found there was potential for a spill to spread along the coastline and into ocean between Esperance in Western Australia, Sydney and Tasmania.
Nopsema said it had imposed stringent conditions on its approval to ensure a high level of protection to the environment in recognition of the bight’s unique values and sensitivities. It said restrictions included limits on the time of year activity can take place and regular public reporting on environmental impact.
The approval followed Nopsema last month asking Equinor to modify and resubmit its environmental plan to provide more information on the consultation it conducted and on risks posed by oil spills. It was the second time it was asked for more information.
The Australia Institute said its polling suggested an overwhelming majority of South Australians wanted the bight to be given world heritage protection and most Australians opposed allowing companies to drill for oil there.
The Greens environment spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the decision was a “pre-Christmas horror show” for South Australia.
“South Australians don’t want our Great Australian Bight turned into an oil field,” she said. “They don’t want a foreign oil giant destroying our coastline and one of our most precious and treasured assets.”
If approved, Equinor plans to begin work in late 2020 with the operations expected to last between 30 and 60 days.