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Leaked oil spill document “alarming”: South Australian MPs

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UPDATED: A leaked environmental draft plan from a Norwegian exploration company looking to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight shows the potential for an oil spill to blanket South Australia’s coastline and reach as far as New South Wales.

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The document, obtained by environmental lobby group Greenpeace, shows oil company Equinor’s prediction of what could happen if an oil spill was to occur in the Great Australian Bight.

Equinor, formerly known as Statoil, confirmed in May that it would proceed with plans to drill an exploration well in the area.

According to the Norwegian company’s draft Oil Pollution Emergency Plan, released today by Greenpeace, a spill could reach Sydney beaches from Bondi to Manly, the Victorian coastline, the majority of the Tasmanian coastline and parts of South Australia’s coastline.

The document leak has sparked outcry from environmental groups and some South Australian MPs who are campaigning to prevent oil companies from drilling in the Great Australian Bight.

But the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association has played down fears, saying the documents detail an absolute worst-case scenario in the event that no action was taken.

Association director Matthew Doman said it was “simply impossible” to imagine oil across the coast in the manner that Greenpeace was suggesting.

“The likelihood of an oil spill is very, very low, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to prepare for it,” he said.

“We’re very proud of our track record of managing our operations in Australian conditions to ensure no environmental harm and we’re very confident that we’ll do that in the Great Australian Bight.”

Equinor is currently preparing an environmental impact statement on its proposal to drill exploration wells in the Bight as part of the approval process.

That’s expected to be released for community consultation early next year.

But Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie said while the draft environment plan was yet to be finalised, South Australians should “all be deeply concerned by the potential risk to the environment and our local economy” outlined in Equinor’s draft oil pollution emergency plan.

Sharkie said the information contained in the draft document was “even more alarming” than previous modelling of a potential oil spill in the Great Australian Bight commissioned by the Wilderness Society in 2015 using data from oil giant BP.

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

Sharkie said the information contained in Equinor’s draft plan reinforced her view that World Heritage Listing of the Great Australian Bight was required.

She said she hoped to introduce a draft Private Member’s Bill pushing for heritage listing to parliament in the final sitting weeks of the year.

Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said South Australians “overwhelmingly support” World Heritage protection for the Great Australian Bight.

“This will be a key issue leading up to the next federal election,” she said.

“This alarming new data must put to bed any consideration for allowing oil and gas drilling in the Great Australian Bight.

“It has serious dangers for almost all Australian states.”

Independent South Australian Senator Tim Storer, who is pushing to divert final responsibility for authorising or rejecting drilling in the Bight to the federal Environment Minister, questioned why Equinor had not released the draft document itself. 

“Why is it that South Australians are forced to learn about these specific risks via a leaked document rather than from a transparent review process?,” he said.

“This leaked document demonstrates the need for greater transparency in the review process which takes into account the views of South Australians.

“It is concerning that information relating to the health and safety of the Bight has been kept away from public scrutiny.”

Wilderness Society South Australia director Peter Owen said the Great Australian Bight was a significant whale nursery, which he said made it a “completely inappropriate place for risk, damaging oil exploration.”

“Our politicians and governments must represent the interests of the community they are elected to govern for, not multi-national oil companies,” he said.

In a statement, Equinor said it considered “openness and transparency as an important step in building trust with communities.”

“Now that part of the unfinished Environment Plan has been made public, it is important to note that we are commenting on work which is still ongoing and not yet finalised,” a spokesperson from the company said.

Equinor has also stressed that the hypothetical simulations featured in its draft document were only “one part of a comprehensive environment plan.”  

We use these simulations as a tool to ensure we have robust response arrangements in place for any circumstances.

“For over four decades we have drilled safely on the Norwegian Continental Shelf and around the world in water depths and weather conditions similar to the Great Australian Bight.” 

Since plans were first floated for oil drilling in the Bight in 2011, local councils, the fishing industry and environmentalists have voiced their opposition to the industry’s interest in the area.

But some residents on the Eyre Peninsula and recently elected Kangaroo Island Mayor Michael Pengilly, a former state Liberal MP, have argued the oil industry would provide a jobs boost for the region.

– with AAP

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