The Great Australian Bight is a pristine marine sanctuary along the southern coast of Australia – more than 85% of the known species there are found nowhere else in the world.1
EDO has acted to conserve the abundance of life in the Bight and hold to account the corporations who wish to drill for oil and gas in its pristine waters.
The Need for Transparency
A key theme of our work in the Bight has been to ensure the public has access to critical information about what fossil fuel companies are doing — or planning to do — there.
The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) took over the federal Environment Minister’s approval powers for offshore petroleum projects in 2014. There have been a number of transparency issues with NOPSEMA since it took on this role. A review of the first year of operations following the handover found that stakeholders do not perceive NOPSEMA to be a transparent regulator and decision-maker.2
FOI Win on Potential Dangers
In 2018, EDO helped Greenpeace Australia Pacific obtain documents under Freedom of Information laws which reveal the potential dangers involved in drilling for oil in the Bight.
The emergency plans prepared by resources company BP to deal with an oil spill there were released after a two-year battle with NOPSEMA.
Greenpeace began the FOI proceedings in August 2016 and within months obtained the plans. However, the documents were heavily redacted on the basis that release of complete documents was contrary to the public interest, due to personal privacy and possible adverse business effects.
Greenpeace then sought EDO’s help in having the entirety of the documents released through external review by the Australian Information Commissioner (IC) of the NOPSEMA decision. EDO argued that there were no adverse business effects and it was in the public interest to disclose the entire documents in order to inform public debate, increase scrutiny of Government and provide the Australian community with access to information in line with the objectives of FOI laws.
Before the IC reviews were completed, in October 2018 NOPSEMA released all the documents, with only personal details removed.
The documents reveal ‘significant uncertainty’ about drilling in the area and the potential for serious impacts if a spill were to occur.
Kangaroo Island Whales
In another win for transparency, NOPSEMA was ordered to release key documents about seismic exploration activities in whale feeding grounds near Kangaroo Island, South Australia in January 2016.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), with the help of EDO, took legal action in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in April 2015, after NOPSEMA refused to release its assessment documents and the full Environmental Plan for the seismic testing by Bight Petroleum.
Bight Petroleum objected to the release of the full Environmental Plan on the grounds that the release would adversely affect its business affairs. The Environmental Plan is the regulatory document with which Bight Petroleum must comply; without the full plan there is no way for the public to ensure the company is meeting its obligations under the law.
In addition, NOPSEMA refused to release its own assessments on the basis the documents would reveal its deliberative process. Without NOPSEMA’s own assessment of Bight Petroleum’s environmental plan, there was no way for the public to verify if NOPSEMA is properly fulfilling its regulatory functions, which includes assessing the impacts from proposed developments on matters of national environmental significance.
This was the first seismic exploration licence that NOPSEMA had assessed and approved after it received approval powers from the federal Environment Minister.