Oil and Water: On Collaboration and Complexity

Nicole Endacott reflects on complexity, action and uncertainty in co-designing an all-day workshop hosted by SEI last month, which brought together a diverse group of experts to discuss the issues surrounding Norwegian oil company Equinor’s proposal to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

Image by Victor Garcia, via Unsplash

The question of drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight is multi-faceted and complex, and requires thinking and acting in multiple dimensions. Equinor’s proposed exploratory well, Stromlo-1, is not only a critical issue for the environment, but for legislation, governance and community justice. By bringing together a diverse group of experts, including academics from multiple disciplines, including law (energy, natural resources and petroleum), sociology, biological sciences and environmental engineering, community representatives and former oil and coal industry executives, we hoped to design a workshop to address the depth of this complexity as well as to inspire purposeful action that goes beyond the surface.

Understanding complexity

A facilitator’s job begins well before the day of the workshop or event. In order for the workshop to capture the complexity of the issues presented in Equinor’s proposal, I needed to immerse myself in that complexity, beginning with some desk research and conversations so that I could understand the main issues. Fortunately I wasn’t starting from scratch, a lot of the groundwork had been done by the Convenors and working group, Michelle St Anne, Abbas El-Zein, Madeline Taylor, Gemma Viney and Nathanial Pelle. They had identified workshop participants and presenters who brought different perspectives and expertise. One report, in particular, helped provide the initial framing, Crude Intentions: Exposing the risks of drilling & spilling in the Great Australian Bight. Commissioned by Greenpeace Australia Pacific, the report is an independent expert opinion by Professor Richard Steiner, Marine Conservation Biologist/Oil Spill Consultant, Oasis Earth and Anchorage Alaska USA. The themes raised in the report helped me to understand enough about the issues to develop a series of questions for dialogue interviews, which are in-depth conversations that enable the interviewer to see a complex system or situation from the interviewee’s perspective. When synthesised, dialogue interviews are a great way of understanding the range of perspectives that different people hold, emerging themes and how multi-faceted issues are connected.

Making the invisible visible

Taking time to be immersed in complexity in order to understand the reality of what is going on beneath the surface – the dynamics at play, and the underlying structural drivers, mindsets, assumptions and values — allows us to see the whole and parts at the same time. With a foundation of the work of the convenors,desk research and dialogue interviews, the workshop design was developed and refined in conjunction with the working group of experts and presenters. We wanted participants to gain a deep understanding of the range of inter-connected issues, the most critical of which were:

Scale of impacts — from the long-term global issue of climate change to the more localised ecological, cultural, social, economic and human impact in the event of a blowout or oil spill in the Bight.

Reality of risks — the likelihood of a blowout or spill in the context of poor regulation, corporate culture and prevention strategies; the limited capacity to respond and conduct an effective clean-up in the event of a blowout or spill.

Actual vs espoused benefits — proponents of the drilling claim that the project provides fuel security and economic benefit. This does not ring true in the context of global trends in relation to oil and shifts to renewable energy, particularly in the context of Australia as a net energy exporter.

Different interests — Equinor as a company has vastly different goals to those of local South Australian communities, and the current political agenda in Australia doesn’t necessarily espouse the values of all citizens.

Mapping multiplicities

All of these points are inter-related and cannot be considered in isolation. As a social, cultural, economic, legislative and environmental issue, different sectors of society and landscapes will be impacted with vastly different dynamics. Zooming in and out to factor in these different levels means that there can be no silver bullet, and change needs to be enacted at multiple levels. The climate crisis overall is a perfect example of a complex multi-scale issue, with long-term global impacts that conflict with local-level realities. Viable alternatives in renewable energy and economic opportunities must thus reflect different levels, from the community to the global, and consider both short and long term consequences.

Enabling purposeful action

We wanted to design the workshop so that it would be grounded in action; not just talking about the challenges raised by companies wanting to drill in the Bight, but acting to address them as well. At the same time, we couldn’t go straight to action without understanding the multiple dimensions of the issue. The most effective action would occur if the workshop provided a fuller picture of what’s going on and helped identify the greatest opportunities for leverage and change. In order to do this, the workshop design itself was underpinned by elements of Theory U, action learning and community development work.

The focus in the morning session was to deepen our collective understanding of the multi-faceted, dynamic nature of the question of drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight, through a range of presentations and discussions. The afternoon focussed on consolidating information, reflection and mobilising action. Throughout the day we tried to balance structure with flexibility by creating a framework for open discussion whilst ensuring that reflections and actions reflected the complexity of the issues whilst remaining purposeful and focussed on effecting change.

Drawing on diverse expertise

While most of the participants were academics, there were also community representatives and industry leaders.  Some attendees had really extensive understanding of the technical and regulatory aspects of drilling for oil, the impact of business practices and what these mean for safety. Others brought deep understanding of what this really means for affected communities, for oceans and marine life and for the environment. Others brought direct industry experience, or business and legal perspectives. In designing the workshop, we wanted to make sure that we created an enabling environment for these different perspectives, knowledge and experiences to be shared.   Diverse perspectives – when recognised and harnessed – enable greater understanding of complex situations and are a powerful force for change.

Sitting with uncertainty

We needed to be able to sit in uncertainty at times. Bringing together a diverse group of people, we didn’t want to prescribe a specific course of action, but instead consolidate the range of experiences and research, sit with issues and let the responses unfold organically. The workshop was not an endpoint, rather the beginning of a larger project. It didn’t need to answer everything. In the current political climate, many decisions are rushed or hastily pushed through parliament for short-term gain, but within the Anthropocene, broader, longer-term and in-depth explorations of complex issues will be wholly necessary to do justice to those communities and landscapes that are too often overlooked.

One of the key outputs of the working group was a special report submitted last week to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) about the issues surrounding Equinor’s plan to drill an exploratory well in the Great Australian Bight.

Nicole Endacott is a research assistant at the Sydney Environment Institute. Nicole is a facilitator, connector and systems thinker who supports groups seeking to lead powerful change in their communities. By facilitating generative conversations among people with diverse viewpoints, she helps them collectively develop sustainable solutions to complex social challenges. Nicole is particularly committed to ensuring the inclusion of people who bring wisdom from lived experience. Nicole began her career as an aide to the Governor of Victoria, Australia, travelling the state and seeing firsthand the power of community-led change. After working for Columba 1400, a Scottish youth leadership organization, in 2002, Nicole founded Activate Australia, where she became the CEO, a position she held until 2011.