Bight exploration ban sunk in Senate

February 17th, 2017

Amid the clamour of confected outrage in the anti-fossil fuels community this week, the Australian Senate showed some welcome good sense: it put down a Greens move to ban exploration in the Great Australian Bight.

At a time when oil exploration in our region has fallen dramatically and gas supply is in urgent need of invigoration, the Bight represents an enormous opportunity, as noted this week by Resources Minister Matt Canavan.

Senator Canavan told Parliament the potential of the Bight was “a very important issue”.

While acknowledging that environmental safety was essential, he said there was “cause for excitement” about the development possibilities.

“It is a very prospective resource, perhaps one of the best and most prospective in the world,” Senator Canavan  said.

The Australian newspaper reported last year that the Bight prospect could produce hydrocarbons worth as much as $130 billion, even at current depressed prices.

The possible development areas are hundreds of kilometres offshore, many times further offshore than the seabed fields in Bass Strait, off the Victorian coast, which have safely produced oil and gas since the late 1960s.

Some industry analysts have suggested the reserves in the Bight could be of similar size and importance to Australia as Bass Strait and the oil and gas fields which have safely operated  on the North-West Shelf, off the WA coast, for the past 40 years.

However, Australia’s history of safe development is of little interest to anti-fossil fuel activists and proponents of enviro-politics. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young moved to have all exploration banned in the Bight on the grounds of protecting whales and tourism. Other Senators perhaps understood that the proposed development areas are so far offshore as to be of virtually zero relevance to tourism and whale migration paths.

The issue of containment in the event of a possible oil spill is of course relevant and will undoubtedly be the subject of a lot of attention in any exploration proposal to be put to regulatory authorities.

One of the reassurances for those concerned is that at a distance of as much as 400 kilometres (compared to 40-70km in the case of Bass Strait oil rigs), the prospect of a spill getting anywhere near shore is very low. The Southern Ocean is known for its rough seas, in which any spill would be likely to break up and dissipate relatively quickly.

A relatively small leak occurred adjacent to an Exxon/BHP platform 45km off the Victorian coast a fortnight ago.  Exxon reported the spill to the regulator, NOPSEMA, which noted that the spill had dissipated by the following day.

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