What would happen if there was an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight?

 

Standing along the cliffside of the Great Australian Bight is one of those moments that takes your breath away.

Home to one of the most stunning marine environments in the world, the Bight lays claim to the largest population of southern right whales on the globe – but they’re not alone. Sea lions perch on rocks, dolphins bob in and out of the waters and the fish population creates a spectrum of colours you’ve never even dreamt of. Outside of the water, albatrosses soar, ospreys dip and dive for food, while penguins gather at the base of the Nullarbor Cliffs as the ocean laps against the base of the Bight.

Stretching for nearly 3,800 kilometres, it’s one of the last truly untouched wonders of the world. More than 85% of the marine species in the Bight can be found nowhere else on the planet. 

But if oil giants are to get their way, it won’t remain untarnished for long.

 

Who is threatening the Bight?

The Bight has had its fair share of intended oil predators. Giants like BP and Chevron have been vying to tap into one of the world’s last underexplored wonders. While people-power managed to fend off BP a couple of years ago (more on that here),  Norwegian-based oil and gas company Statoil was ready to jump in on BP’s former exploration permits. And they did just that.

Statoil signed an agreement to take over two exploration permits from BP for work in the Bight. Since then, the oil company has made its plans clear. Statoil is aiming to drill an exploration well in the Great Australian Bight as early as next summer – a move that we know presents a catastrophic risk.

“Statoil has come under scrutiny for a worsening safety record. NOPSEMA [the Australian regulator] should not approve drilling in such a sensitive area by a company with such a track record,” explains Greenpeace campaigner, Jonathan Moylan.

“The Great Australian Bight has some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet. Extreme deepwater drilling under such conditions is too risky. Any spill would be catastrophic, as stochastic modelling done previously by BP has shown: the devastating impacts could reach from Perth in WA to Eden on the NSW south coast to as far away as Tasmania.”

So what would happen if there was an oil spill?

We’ve always known that a spill in the Bight would be disastrous. But oil spill modelling has shown us what level of catastrophe we’d actually be facing.

If an oil spill occurred in the Bight during winter, the NSW coast would have a 41% chance of getting hit. In some months, Adelaide would have a 97 % chance of being hit with moderate shoreline contact, within as little as 36 days. And the data only gets worse from there:

*Results were predicted for three different seasons: Winter, summer or Autumn. Displayed results take the season with the highest risk.

Who would suffer the most from a spill in the Bight?

Imagine a place so unique that over three-quarters of the species living there existed nowhere else on the planet. That’s the Bight.  One of the many victims of an oil spill in the Bight would be the wildlife that call this natural wonder home.

Its waters hold 36 species of whales and dolphins, including the world’s most important southern right whale nursery, and many humpback, sperm, blue and beak whales. Australian sea lions swim freely throughout the Bight, one of the only places in the world they can be found in large communities.

When these marine mammals ingest oil and inhale the subsequent vapour from the crude oil it is known to cause damage to their respiratory systems, nervous systems and livers. Making contact with these chemicals is unavoidable as they come to the water’s surface to breathe.

Marine mammals aren’t the only creatures at risk. A large oil spill would cause an acute die-off of oiled birds. This is not only a devastating loss but these deaths could create trophic cascade effects that further impact fisheries.

Oil spills also affect the eggs of fish and sea turtles, both when the spill happens and later on. Fisheries have been known to be impacted for years following spills due to the destruction of eggs when the spillage occurs.

Speaking of local fisheries, a spill even close to that of Deepwater Horizon would be capable of forcing a complete closure of fisheries in the Bight and further east in Bass Strait and the Tasman Sea.

South Australia’s fishing industry is worth upwards of $440 million with tourism industries on the coasts bringing in over $1 billion annually. The two industries are responsible for employing over 10,000 full-time employees, according to the Wilderness Society. A spill that could shut down fishing and put an end to much of the tourism that allows the region to thrive would be a massive blow to the local economy.

The Bight in focus: Remembering Deepwater Horizon

The thing is, we know what a catastrophic oil spill looks like. Deepwater Horizon was one of the biggest environmental disasters of all time – the blowout by BP spilled 800 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 straight days. Just take a look at some of the numbers:

 

  • 2.5 billion: Initial estimated cost of the oil spill to the US fishing industry.
  • 23 billion: The estimated cost of the oil spill to the Gulf Coast tourist industry, which currently employs upwards of 400,000 people.
  • 4.9 million: The total barrels of crude oil released before the leak was capped on 15 July.
  • 4 million: The number of barrels of crude oil it would take, according to Harry Roberts of Louisiana State University, to “wipe out marine life deep at sea near the leak and elsewhere in the Gulf” as well as “along hundreds of miles of coastline”.
  • 53,000: The actual number of leaks in barrels per day.
  • 4,768: The number of dead animals collected as of 13 August.
  • 7,500: The number of employees involved in the clean up.
  • 1,000: BP’s initial prediction of the leak in barrels per day.
  • 170: Number of vessels needed engaged in grassroots clean-up activity.

Remembering how catastrophic this spill was is very important when talking about the Bight. Not just because it reminds us of what could happen. But because it shows us how bad things can get even in the best scenarios.

No one wants an oil spill to occur but if you had to choose a location optimised for a rapid containment operation, the Gulf of Mexico would be at the top of the list. The well was situated in an advanced oil field with quick access to support and resources. And still, it took 87 days to stop the spillage.

The Bight, on the other hand, is about as far from a controlled environment as you can get. There’s nothing nearby, meaning the extra manpower or resources to cap any spill are non-existent. Any recovery mission would have to deal with the Great Australian Bight’s strong winds and high seas – tackling waves that can reach as high as 10 metres in winter.

More than that, the Stromlo-1 well sits at 2250 metres water depth, 750m deeper than the Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well. Deeper suggested drilling areas, stormy terrain, a lack of resources – everything about the proposed drilling in the Bight is just asking for a disaster. Just take Deepwater Horizon as your reference point.

Why should you care?

Oil spills aren’t a one in a million occurrence, they happen fairly often even in our own backyard.

Just a couple of years ago an offshore oil and gas well in Australia leaked continuously into the ocean. For two whole months, the spill ultimately ended up releasing around 10,500 litres of oil into our waters. Worse yet, it wasn’t until recently that the Australian public were informed of this disaster. And still details about the well, its whereabouts and operator remains a secret.

“Australians, and especially those who rely on the ocean for their livelihood, should be deeply concerned by reports that the national oil regulator has withheld information from the public about a 10,500-litre oil leak for over 12 months,” argues Greenpeace campaigner Nathaniel Pelle.

“NOPSEMA’s performance report should be a wake-up call to the government and to anyone who has the bad luck of sharing the marine environment with the oil industry.”  The parody video below highlights all the possible dangers of oil companies operating within the Bight:

 

And when these spills inevitably happen, it’s not the oil companies that really suffer. It’s the people, the marine life and the environment that take the biggest hits. We shouldn’t stand for anything that so obviously threatens the livelihood of our surroundings.

We need to stand together and push back to protect our environment against the relentless greed of oil giants.

How can you take a stand?

The good news is; we’ve kicked oil corporations out of the Bight twice and we can do it again.

Statoil is a company willing to take risks where no other company will. And their safety record is getting worse: the number of spills and incidents at Statoil wells has increased catastrophically in the last year. 

It’s up to us to keep the Bight – and the communities and incredible ocean ecosystems that depend on it – safe from Big Oil. Are you with us? Join the movement to keep Big Oil out of the Bight for good   

Take action now!