Impending blight how statoil’s plans threaten the great australian bight environment the guardian gas news of manipur

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Of the species in the bight, 85% are found nowhere else on the planet. It is a breeding ground for the endangered southern right whale and a feeding zone for Australian sea lions, great white sharks, migratory sperm whales and short-tailed shearwaters.

In July 2017 Statoil, Norway’s state-owned oil company, became operator and 100% equity owner of two of the four permit zones it had shared with BP until the British oil giant withdrew the previous year. A few months later Chevron also withdrew from its exploration zones.

The Greenpeace senior campaigner Nathaniel Pelle says Statoil’s experience comes from taking risks in places where other companies won’t go and points to successive incidents in recent years. “There’s no such thing as safe drilling,” Pelle says.

“I think of the disaster with Deepwater Horizon and it was in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico is pretty calm, you’re pretty much always close to a decent-sized city and response,” she says. “I can’t even imagine a response team getting out to where this could be.”

Despite a rough day on the water observing species in the bight, with gale-force gusts and three-metre swells, Rummer is beaming after encountering sharks, sea lions and large schools of fish. “A colder climate ecosystem like that is pretty remarkable,” she says.

“After we think an oil spill has been cleaned up we still have residual oil in the water column that can be affecting fish,” Rummer says. “And these concentrations – we are talking about like a couple of drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, so you can’t see it – are affecting the cognition of fish.”

Affected behaviours include diminished schooling skills, a “boldness” in straying from safe areas and disturbed predator-escape responses. In the Gulf of Mexico species exposed to oil were found with deformed hearts and up to a 30% reduction in swimming performance.

Kirsten Rough, research scientist with the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association, says a spill would be “catastrophic” for the industry and undermine 30 years of international efforts to rebuild the southern bluefin tuna population.

“We would expect Statoil to operate to at least equivalent standards that are applied to remote, ecologically sensitive and pristine locations elsewhere; such as the Arctic and Newfoundland. For example … Statoil would need to have response equipment located both at the drill site, and in close proximity to the drilling site.”

BP’s own modelling showed an oil spill could pollute 750km of coastline, including as far north as New South Wales, and drilling could disrupt whale migration. It was also revealed that in an early unapproved draft of a 2016 report, BP said an oil spill in the area would be a “welcome boost” for the local economy, with fishing boats drafted in to assist. The cavalier suggestion only added to the fears of local communities, environmental scientists and observers.

Ritchie says the region is better suited as a renewable energy provider – a prospect far less risky than drilling for oil. “Even a 1% risk is too much,” he says. “Yes, they have the experience; yes, they would take the steps – but any risk at all risks our local businesses as well.”

While Waller recognises the irony in needing diesel fuel to run his vessels, he says the risk of drilling for oil is too great in such rough and frequently “disgusting” conditions. “I’m the fourth generation to have fished in that area,” he says. “We’ve built boats over time and I’m yet to see one that is sufficient to handle the conditions. There are days that we cancel.”

Port Lincoln is not the only community on the bight coast, however. More than 400km to the north-west, Ceduna has not experiences the tourism boom of its neighbours. The district’s mayor, Allan Suter, says his council is holding out until it hears what Statoil has to say.

“Any development is welcome in this area – we don’t get a lot of development,” he says. “The [government] pumped our tyres up with all sorts of waffle about how much tourism we’re going to get with the marine parks project, but to my mind we haven’t had a single tourist.”

The Statoil spokesman said if the drilling finds oil and begins development, South Australia could expect “hundreds of new jobs” – a claim Greenpeace says would likely by Fifo workers, for a short period of construction – as well as tax revenue and “rich opportunities for local suppliers”.

Those assurances are also required by the regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema). It is considered a “one-stop shop” for approvals and regulation of offshore petroleum activities in commonwealth waters.

On Thursday Nopsema buoyed the hopes of those opposed to drilling when it rejected the application by oil exploration company PGS to conduct a seismic survey over an area including the four permit zones, on the grounds it wasn’t satisfied with PGS’s environmental impact plans. It had also rejected three applications from BP before the company bailed out.

But there are concerns about Nopsema’s processes. “The system we operate under in Australia means plans don’t need to be made public,” Greenpeace’s Pelle says. “It means there’s no public scrutiny. The fishing industry isn’t entitled to see the plans, local councils, even state government bodies are not entitled by law to see these full plans before they go ahead.