Is it time to Bight back?

The Great Australian Bight has become a core environmental issue and focus for debate, as Norwegian oil company Equinor pushes ahead with a proposal to drill in the area.

The Greens have been vehemently opposed to the proposal.

“In the case of an oil spill, our tourism and fishing industries would be irreversibly destroyed,” says Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

“Not only that, but it chains us to damaging fossil fuels at a time we need decisive action on climate change and a serious transition to clean energy.”

With the federal election looming, pressure from environmentalists has resulted in Labor and the Coalition making last-minute changes to their policies on drilling in the bight.

The Coalition’s Resources Minister Matt Canavan said on Thursday if they were re-elected an independent audit of the oil regulator’s consideration of exploration in the Bight would be commissioned.

Labor added to their policy, to conduct an independent scientific study, saying the study would be completed before the industry regulator made any decision on the bight.

Senator Hanson-Young has been critical of the Liberal Party stance on drilling.

“Risking thousands of jobs in fishing, tourism and conservation cannot be justified by claiming we can simply create other jobs cleaning up oil spills,” she said.

“It’s offensive to South Australians that a big multinational company thinks we’ve got nothing better to do than cleaning up sludge and muck from an oil spill that would devastate our tourism and fishing industries.”

But it’s more than the fear of oil spills creating alarm. Some experts say the search procedures alone and the drilling itself would have an impact on the ocean.

For example, explorers use seismic surveys to locate possible oil reservoirs and the sound waves are harmful to surrounding marine life. They could potentially strand some whale species and any animal close by could be injured by the intensity.

The drilling site alone would harm the marine life. Experts say it would destroy the seabed, causing loss of habitat and affecting migration pathways for species like the Southern Right Whale.

A spokeswoman for Liberal MP Sarah Henderson said Ms Henderson had the welfare of the bight at heart.

“She shares her local community’s concerns about the project,” the spokeswoman said.

“Our natural environment, including our pristine oceans, is something Sarah will always stand for and always fight for.”

Tthe ABC has reported an estimated 1500 jobs over the next 40 years would be created because of the oil drilling plans.

Marine biologist Peter Fairweather said oil drilling could be done safely “if we use great wisdom and apply what we have learned from other examples around the world”.

However, he posed this question: “How do we guard against the absolute dumb-luck chance accident like in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deep Horizon event?”

If the plans for oil drilling went ahead, safeguards must be put in place, he said. This should include companies contributing to a fund to cover the cost of any damage or potential oil spill ahead of time.