Sean Doherty: Why Fight for the Bight?
It's a campaign to protect a lone region, yet it cuts across the big issues of our age.
Surf journalist Sean Doherty is one of the organisers of the Fight for the Bight campaign, and for many months he's spoken to and read comments from surfers who feel conflicted supporting the campaign.
Here, Sean sits down with Swellnet to unravel the knotty issues.
Swellnet: What are the risks of Equinor's proposal?
It’s frontier drilling. It’s almost 400km out in the Bight in over 2km of water and in some pretty wild latitudes. If they drill it’ll be the deepest and most remote well in Australia - and one of the deepest and most remote anywhere in the world. Ultra-deep drilling like this, while not common, happens around the world but is a fairly recent phenomenon as they chase deposits out into deeper water.
I know the Bass Strait wells get wheeled out to prove drilling happens safely in Australia but it’s apples and oranges. This well would be 20 times deeper than most of the wells currently in production in Bass Strait. The danger here isn’t so much the depth though, it’s the remoteness. Most oil and gas production is clustered, like on the NW Shelf and in the North Sea. That makes it economic enough to keep contingency infrastructure localised nearby. There’s nothing in the Bight.
One of the main sticking points of Equinor’s plan is that their capping stack isn’t even in Australia, it has to be shipped from Singapore. The capping stack was invented after the Deepwater Horizon blowout to be used to cap deep wells, but Equinor’s will take 15 days just to get to Australia, and then it can’t be deployed in any real sea state. They could be sitting there for weeks in port unable to do anything…and there’s no guarantees once they get out there they’ll be able to stop it.
In their EP and all our conversations with them they appear to be grossly underestimating the sea state out there in the Bight and there’s almost an arrogance to their manner. “We drill in the North Sea, this is nothing.” They’ve actually said that. We’ve got guys like Camel and Heath Joske down there who are right across Equinor’s EP and their claims around sea state just don’t match the reality. In a 1500-page plan it’s covered in just two pages.
So what would a spill look like? We’ve seen the modelling but how close would that be to what you’d see?
That spill modelling map you’ve probably seen is a worst case 102-day flow. It would mostly move predominately east on the Leeuwin Current, although if it happened in summer it would move west as well. The modelling map you’ve seen was dismissed by Equinor as sensationalised, that it was a composite of 100-odd spill scenarios, but what they didn’t tell you is that those spills were all concentric, all within each other. That modelling map shows everywhere that Equinor themselves believe a worst case spill would end up. Any kind of spill would be bad news.
Why protest against this particular well? There are dozens of oil and gas prospects being looked at all around the country.
This one has some unique points to it. Aside from the frontier nature of the drilling exercise itself and the attendant risk, the company behind it makes it an interesting case. Equinor are two-thirds owned by the Norwegian people – not bloodless shareholders – and as such Equinor have to operate with, as they put it, more of a “social license”. They have to be seen to be doing the right thing by the Norwegian people, which is half the reason they’re here in Australia half a world away doing their dirty work.
Just two years ago they were known as Statoil but have undergone a rebranding as Equinor to pass themselves off as a progressive energy company to Norwegians. It’s all bullshit of course. They actually do have the highest percentage of capital expenditure on renewable projects of any major energy company in the world, but you know what that percentage is? Two per cent. The other 98 per cent is spent developing new fossil fuel sources.
The campaign here in Australia has also been aimed strongly back at Norway. Equinor are really sensitive about bad press at home.
Are you against all oil drilling and oil use?
I’m personally against any new oil and gas development, as New Zealand has done. There’s enough in production to keep us going for decades, well beyond the threshold where climate change becomes irreversible. That change and that transition to a sustainable system needs to happen in some serious way right now… and it doesn’t involve drilling a dirty hole in the floor of the Southern Ocean and burning up whatever comes out for the next 50 years.
Most of the technology and tools are there to do it right now, there’s just a lack of political will.
Talk to me about industry subsidies.
How long have you got? In Australia the coal, oil and gas lobby are so far up the arses of politicians on both sides that it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. At the moment the fossil fuel industry here in Australia is subsidised to the tune of about $4 billion annually. The Adani mine alone has been promised something in that ballpark to get started. Most of these subsidies take the form of tax breaks and royalty holidays. The system just haemorrhages revenue and appears to have been actually designed by the fossil fuel companies themselves.
How’s this? The Petroleum Resource Rent Tax has a provision that in the event of an oil spill that allows the company responsible to use whatever they spend on cleaning it up as a future tax deduction. The taxpayer foots the bill from future tax earnings.
And then the companies themselves are notorious tax dodgers. Exxon turned over $33 billion in revenue between 2013 and 2016 and didn’t pay a cent of tax, and that kind of thing is fairly common. Most of the big energy companies offshore profits in tax havens, or minimise tax by loaning money to themselves from parent companies and charging themselves above market interest rates. The whole thing is a scam and the government allows it to happen under their nose as they are in the pocket of the fossil fuel companies.
That’s the nexus that needs to be broken. Nothing meaningful will happen until then. Australia meanwhile has become a First World quarry. We’ve had a couple of resource booms and have nothing to show for it - it’s all sailed overseas. That’s the irony of the Norwegians coming here to drill. They set up a sovereign wealth fund and squirrelled away all their oil earnings. It’s now worth almost a trillion and a half dollars, a quarter of a million for each Norwegian. And what are we handing our kids?
Will you be riding a horse to the protest, wearing hemp boardshorts and paddling out on a piece of driftwood?
Unlikely. I drive a dual cab ute and own several PU boards. The hypocrisy criticism is pretty base level though. Fossil fuels have got us this far and that’s great, but it’s patently clear we can’t keep going the way we are. This has to start somewhere. Making changes to personal behaviours is a start, but there’s only so much individuals can do when the whole system is gamed to keep the fossil fuel companies in business. The big changes need to come from the top and that’s just not happening right now. Quite the opposite in fact.
The leaders of this country are essentially agents of the fossil fuel lobby who are now threatening to arrest anyone who stands in their way. Good luck to them on Saturday. The crew turning up for the paddle-outs aren’t radical activists. They’re just people going to the beach; young, old, mums, dads, kids. That’s an Australian way of life, right? And it’s not a crime to want to pass that down to your kids.