Fossil fuel producer Equinor is abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight. Toni Ambrogetti has been following the controversial project and explains that in the end it came down to money, not environmental concerns.

FEBRUARY 25: After months of public pressure and protest, Equinor has announced it is no longer “commercially viable” to proceed with drilling in the Ceduna sub-basin, 372 kilometres south of the Nullarbor coastline.

This is despite the company’s environmental plan being approved over the Christmas period – a move that prompted the Wilderness Society to launch legal action against the national regulator.

A statement on the Norwegian company’s website explains that: “following a holistic review of its exploration portfolio, Equinor has concluded that the project’s potential is not commercially competitive compared with other exploration opportunities in the company.”

The move has been welcomed by The Greens and others who feared the impact a potential spill would have on marine wildlife.

According to Australian manager Jone Stangeland, Equinor will maintain other interests and activities in Australia, in particular in offshore Western Australia.

DECEMBER 18:  A Norwegian exploration company’s plan to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight is all but assured, after the offshore regulator approved its latest environment plan.

Equinor yesterday passed the second and most significant stage of the regulatory process.

OCTOBER 3: An oil giant’s plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight are back on the table, with regulators to decide within weeks if they’ll be given the go-ahead.

The Norwegian-based exploration company Equinor wants to drill a deepwater well 370km offshore, to a depth of more than two kilometres, in search of oil.

It had been given 60 days to re-submit its Environment Plan (EP) to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), after “information gaps” were found in its original submission.

The publicly-released draft also received more than 31 thousand submissions opposing the project.

Equinor lodged its re-write a fortnight ago, saying it had “listened and learned”.

But the safety of workers and damage to marine life aren’t the community’s only concerns.

A Freedom of Information request to the South Australian Department of Energy and Mining, shows the government has not conducted any independent research or modelling into potential job creation – or loss – and is instead citing figures provided by an oil industry lobby group.

In a public document called “The facts about offshore oil and gas exploration in South Australia”, the department quotes potential for a “base of 1361 jobs in SA [to be] created during [the] development and construction phase and an average of 826 jobs per year over the next 40 years”.


Screenshot from Page 5 of “Facts about offshore oil and gas exploration in South Australia.”

The document cites ACIL Allen Consulting – the same agency commissioned by Equinor’s Australian lobby group APPEA.

APEAA represents the interests of oil and gas exploration and production corporations and presented the same figures in an August 6, 2018 media release titled; “Potential Bight benefits great for state and nation.”

Screenshot of media release

Screenshot from APEAA’s media release on August 6, 2018

Equinor and APPEA have a vested interest in presenting the highest possible job creation numbers in order to gain public support.

According to August Labour Force figures, South Australia has the country’s highest unemployment rate, at 7.3 per cent.

But the number of jobs at risk in the event of an oil spill is much higher than the jobs potentially created by offshore drilling.

Last September, the City of Port Lincoln convened a special meeting to discuss new research into the economic impact of an oil spill on existing Bight industries.

After hearing 5000 jobs would be at risk, the city subsequently joined more than a dozen other local councils in openly opposing Equinor’s plan.

Equinor is the operator and 100% equity owner of exploration permits EPP 39 and 40, covering approximately 12,000km2. 

It hopes to start drilling next year and on its website, asserts that it “can drill safely”.

NOPSEMA meanwhile, is responsible for regulating offshore workforce safety and the protection of the marine environment.

It was recently the subject of an independent audit, which was commissioned by the Liberal Party and conducted by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel.

“Community concern regarding petroleum exploration activities in the Great Australian Bight has driven a desire for assurance in NOPSEMA’s processes and decision-making as the independent regulator for offshore petroleum activities in Commonwealth waters.” – Dr Alan Finkel

Dr Finkel’s findings were released last month and largely backed the offshore regulator’s assessment process.

NOPSEMA’s decision on Equinor’s revised plan is now expected by November 14.

Meanwhile, South Australia’s Minister for Energy and Mining, Mr Dan van Holst Pellekaan – who is a former employee of BP – has not responded to requests to comment on the inclusion of APEAA’s jobs figures in the public information document, or why there appears to have been no independent verification.

— Toni Ambrogetti (additional editing Sue Stephenson)

*Featured image: Wikimedia Commons