Oil and Gas Exploration in the Great Australian Bight
Once more unto the breach …
This is an important issue – for Kangaroo Island and for the state as a whole. I am still hopeful it will be possible to have a harmonious discussion focussing on the facts.
Why would anyone want oil and gas exploration near Kangaroo Island?
Our society, and every modern liberal democracy, depends on cheap energy. The primary sources of that energy are oil, coal and gas. These energy sources enable us to travel, to heat our homes, to run industry and agriculture, to provide health and education services. No energy means none of these things.
Developing countries need this energy too, to provide these same services, including basic health care, to their people. While foreign aid might be helpful in emergencies, what developing nations really need is power stations, cheap energy. And that depends on cheap fuel.
We all rely on oil and gas, KI residents more than most. While we might prefer oil development to take place somewhere else, it would be immoral to deny developing countries the energy sources Western nations have used to pull themselves out of poverty over the last centuries. Responsible energy development is an important part of our commitment to being part of a global community.
In addition, developing energy resources within Australia improves national security, and reduces our dependence on, and financial contributions to, corrupt and frequently brutal Middle-eastern regimes. It also helps to preserve forests and wildlife. If you are worried about your child starving, or dying because you have no access to clean water or cannot obtain basic medical care, you are not going to be concerned about the state of forests in Indonesia, or the whale hunt at the Faroes. The more prosperous a country or people, the more time and resources go into preserving and caring for the environment.
So private energy resource development should be encouraged unless in a particular situation there are pressing reasons why it should not.
Are there pressing reasons why oil and gas exploration in the Great Australian Bight should not proceed?
There are three main reasons opponents to development have put forward.
1. Oil rigs and other equipment near Kangaroo Island will spoil the landscape, reduce the natural beauty of the area, and consequently reduce its appeal to visitors.
The nearest practical development point for an oil rig within Bight Petroleum’s exploration zones is approximately one hundred and fifty kilometres west of the West coast of KI. If this is on KI or even near KI, then so are Gawler and Keith. If the Eiffel Tower was perched at Cape Borda, and you were standing at the top with a telescope, you would still not see an oil rig at that distance.
2. Acoustic imaging used to map geological structures on the sea floor is harmful to whales, dolphins and other marine sea life.
Acoustic imaging has been used for the last forty years. One of the reasons for this is that it helps developers pinpoint likely productive sites, reducing unnecessary drilling and environmental impact. The possible effects of acoustic imaging on marine life have been extensively researched during this time. No university or other study has ever found any correlation between acoustic imaging and increased beachings, or any other negative effect, for example on reproductive rates or migration patterns. Recent intensive study conducted in Australia by Woodside Petroleum, the CSIRO and Penn State University likewise found no negative effects on sessile and territorial marine life.
Anti-development activists have sometimes suggested that the hearing of whales and dolphins could be permanently damaged by the noise of acoustic imaging. Sperm whales vocalise at about 235dB. The average acoustic array produces about 230dB. Even if the whales were 2 metres from an active array, the sound they heard would be less than the sound of their own vocalisations. To suggest that their hearing could be damaged by this is equivalent to claiming our hearing would be permanently damaged by listening to chatter at a tea party.
3. The possibility of a serious spill.
Spills are far more likely during handling and transportation than during exploration and development. The most significant risk of a serious oil spill near Kangaroo Island is from the transport of oil products to the island.
Australia’s worst development spill, and third worst oil spill overall, was at the Montara well in the Timor Sea. The two worst, from the Princess Anne Marie oil tanker in 1975 and the Kiriki tanker in 1991, were both transport spills. Prevailing winds and currents pushed the oil slick from Montara one hundred and eighty kilometres from the well site. At that distance, the slick was patchy, intermittent, and a few microns thick – less than the almost invisible amount of oil left behind by a well-maintained outboard motor. A spill of this magnitude occurs about once in every 100,000 years of well operation.
If a similar spill occurred at the closest point for any development in the Bight, a few streaks of oil a few microns thick could just reach the Western shores of KI, if wind and currents were behind it. But during the calmer months when development would be taking place, prevailing upwellings would push any spilt oil away from, not towards Kangaroo Island. Oil even from a one in one hundred thousand year spill would not approach Kangaroo Island. In addition, safety standards are improving all the time. The worst year for oil spills in the nineties was better than the best year in the seventies.
In other words, even if a spill occurred, no oil would reach the shores of Kangaroo Island, and the chances of such a spill occurring at all are tiny – one in one hundred thousand years of operation.
To summarise: The proposed oil exploration and development is not “on KI.” It is not even “near” KI in any normal meaning of that word. No oil rigs or other development would be visible from anywhere on Kangaroo Island. Forty years of research has shown no harm to any form of marine life from acoustic imaging. There is no correlation between acoustic imaging and increased beachings, and no evidence of hearing loss in any marine species. Even if a spill equal to the worst in Australia’s history occurred at the development site, oil would not reach the shores of KI. The chances of such a spill’s occurring are approximately one in 100,000 years of well operation.
There are good economic, humanitarian and environmental reasons why responsible oil and gas development should proceed. There are no compelling, truthful, reality-based reasons it should not.