Environmental Defenders Office has launched legal action in the Federal Court on behalf of The Wilderness Society (South Australia), challenging Norwegian multinational Equinor’s plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.
The case seeks to overturn the environmental approval granted just before Christmas 2019 by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) for Equinor’s Stromlo-1 project. The controversial project involves deepwater drilling to explore new oil reserves located under protected areas of the Bight off the coast of South Australia.
There has been widespread community objection to Equinor’s project. An oil spill here would pose catastrophic risks to marine and coastal life across large parts of southern Australia. There is also significant public concern about the development of new fossil fuel reserves at a time when urgent and deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Our client’s application for review of the Stromlo-1 environmental approval is based on three grounds relating to failure to comply with the requirements of the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009 made under the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006.
Under the Act and its Regulations, there is a legal obligation for proponents of offshore drilling projects to consult with relevant parties in the development of their environmental plans. This consultation process is vital to ensure that all risks are identified and properly assessed. In the case of Equinor’s controversial Stromlo-1 project, our client The Wilderness Society (SA) says this consultation process did not occur and so NOPSEMA’s approval of their project should be overturned by the Court. The Courts have consistently found that strict compliance with consultation requirements is mandatory to ensuring public involvement in environmental decision-making processes and procedural fairness.
Given its sensitive location, and the multi-jurisdictional impacts that would occur in the event of an oil spill, this drilling project raises issues of regional and national importance. Our client has a long history of advocating for the protection of the Bight from the risks of oil drilling. They consistently requested that Equinor consult them in accordance with the procedures required by law. Yet Equinor excluded The Wilderness Society (SA), and other environment groups, from the formal consultation process. Our client argues that Equinor also failed to formally consult key Aboriginal groups and local governments along the Bight coast, who would be directly affected by any oil spill, so an essential legal pre-requisite to the exercise of NOPSEMA’s approval power was not satisfied. That is why our client is asking the Court to overturn this decision.
As part of the Stromlo-1 project, Equinor plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight Commonwealth Marine Reserve. The Great Australian Bight is a pristine marine environment, a haven for 36 species of whales and dolphins, including the world’s most important nursery for the endangered southern right whale. It’s the most important nursery for the endangered Australian sea lion and supports Australia’s biggest fishing industry.
Ultra-deepwater oil drilling is a high-risk operation that led to the world’s biggest oil spill accident, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010, when 800 million litres of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The waters of the Great Australian Bight are deeper, rougher and more remote than the Gulf of Mexico.
Equinor’s oil spill modelling revealed that a spill from an uncontained blowout was guaranteed to impact the South Australian coast, and a spill could impact anywhere along much of southern Australia, from Western Australia right across to Australia’s east coast around Tasmania and as far as Sydney.
Recent polling shows that the majority of Australians and nearly 70 per cent of South Australians oppose drilling in the Bight.