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Frustration at uncertainty over seismic testing in the Bight

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South Australian senators have expressed frustration at the national offshore oil and gas regulator for granting multiple extensions to Norwegian oil exploration company PGS to submit its application to conduct a seismic survey in the Great Australian Bight.

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PGS Australia – a subsidiary of Norwegian company PGS – is pushing to conduct a seismic survey in the Great Australian Bight from March next year to determine the area’s viability for oil extraction.

The proposed survey covers four petroleum exploration permit zones and a small amount of open acreage area approximately 90 kilometres west of Kangaroo Island and 80 kilometres southwest of Port Lincoln.

Seismic testing involves repeatedly firing compressed air into water to create blasts of sound that penetrate into the seabed – a practice environment groups say causes extensive harm to marine life within kilometres of the testing area.

PGS first submitted its environmental plan to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority in February last year. The authority has since granted the company 12 extensions and two opportunities to modify its plan.

The latest extension ended yesterday, however a spokesperson for the authority said the timeframes were not statutory and applicants could reapply to have their environment plan approved as many times as reasonably practicable. It is not yet clear if PGS Australia has resubmitted its environmental plan to NOPSEMA following yesterday’s deadline.

South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called for the authority to reject PGS’ application immediately.

“PGS should have no more chances to get their environmental plan right,” she told InDaily.

“The Greens are fighting tooth and nail with the South Australian community to stop big oil and gas drilling off the coast of Kangaroo Island and in the Bight.

“The impact on our tourism industry and the marine life off our coast would be devastating.”

Fellow South Australian Senator Rebekha Sharkie, from the Centre Alliance, has also expressed frustration at the authority’s inability to end what has become a lengthy application process.

She said while she had respect for the NOPSEMA process, she said it was hard to understand “why PGS should be given an infinite number of attempts to submit its environment plan on time.”

“I have no cause to suspect that NOPSEMA is anything but a genuinely independent, expert regulator. However, NOPSEMA’s hands are tied and I rate their expansively permissive guidelines in their dealings with resources companies as hampering their effectiveness,” she said.

“It is a complex scientific question as to the extent of the damage that seismic testing can cause to our environment, but my view is that it is not worth the risk.”

NOPSEMA has been the primary Commonwealth regulator for all offshore oil and gas activities since 2014. According its website, the authority has so far refused 4 per cent of all environment plans submitted for assessment.

Independent South Australian Senator Tim Storer is planning to move amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act when the Senate returns on Monday to divert final responsibility for authorising or rejecting drilling in the Bight to the federal Environment Minister.

“This would not replace the NOPSEMA process – it would remain one step in the process,” he said.

“Should NOPSEMA recommend against drilling, that would make it that much harder for government to advocate such an environmentally risky enterprise.”

Storer said giving ultimate responsibility to the minister would provide a more “rigorous assessment” by ensuring community and industry concerns were considered as part of the final approval process.

His motion is supported by Wilderness Society SA director Peter Owen, who described the current NOPSEMA process as “unsatisfactory”, with environmental plan applications consistently “dragged on and on for months” by the national regulator.

“NOPSEMA essentially assess applications based around risk factors being low as reasonable practical,” he said.

“With the minister resuming ultimate responsibility, there is scope for social licence, industry concerns, local council views to be considered as part of the decision.

“We need to be careful what we wish for though, because there’s always the fear we might have a rogue minister.”

Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price dismissed Storer’s proposal, saying she had confidence in NOPSEMA’s ability to deliver a high standard of environmental protection.

“NOPSEMA’s assessment explicitly considers potential impacts on matters protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999,” she said in a statement.

“NOPSEMA will only accept an offshore project proposal or environment plan when it meets all the requirements of the Environment Regulations and demonstrates that all environmental impacts and risks will be managed to an acceptable level.”

Price added that NOPSEMA had been subject to independent review in 2015, with that review determining that all commitments had been met during NOPSEMA’s initial 12 months in operation.

She said the next review would commence early next year.

Environment groups have argued conducting seismic testing off the Great Australian Bight could seriously endanger marine life, particularly given the area’s status as a significant whale nursery.

Owen said the sonic guns used in the testing created a “deafening noise” which had led to hearing loss in whales, a species which communicate via echolocation.

“This process involves blasting deafening noise approximately every 10 seconds,” he said.

“I always compare it to if you were in a bedroom and someone was blasting an air horn every 10 seconds, that’s what it would be like for the whales that, for hundreds of years, have migrated to the area.

“This would be happening for months on end.”

Seismic testing has also been widely criticised by the fishing industry, with groups saying the testing would lead to a decline in scallop, rock lobster and plankton populations.

Global oil giant BP abandoned its plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight in 2016, at the time saying the project did not align with its “strategic goals”.

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