The People vs. Oil: The Extraordinary Risks of Deep-Sea Drilling in the Great Australian Bight

Brett Morgan on why we should be deeply and urgently invested in protecting the future of Australia’s Great Southern Reef.

An aerial shot of oil from the leaking wellhead in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010. Copyright Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

I believe it to be a fair assumption that most Australians would be able to point out the Great Barrier Reef on a map. I would even go so far as to suggest that a lot of visitors to Australia would be able to do the same thing. This is primarily because the Reef is revered for its immeasurable beauty; its pristine waters are home to around 1,500 species of fish, and a coral reef so magnificent that it is visible from orbit. How many of us, though, are aware of the Great Southern Reef, which stretches from Kalbarri in Western Australia all the way around past the far north coast of New South Wales? How many of us are aware of the fact that, just beyond the approximate midpoint of the magnificent Great Southern Reef, in the waters of the Great Australian Bight, one will find a marine environment more biodiverse than the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Australian Bight is home to one of the most unique marine ecosystems in the world. Over 85% of the species living there are endemic to that region, meaning that they are found nowhere else on Earth.The Bight is a breeding ground for the endangered southern right whale, home to the Australian sea lion, a migratory pathway for several apex predators, and every time exploratory work is undertaken in its waters, previously-undiscovered species are found.For many years, however, this region has been a site of contestation between big oil companies and environmental advocates and campaigning organisations. Several oil companies currently hold exploration permits within the Bight region—including Norwegian state-owned oil giant Equinor (formerly Statoil)—and the long-term plan is to undertake deep sea drilling in the Bight, in the hopes of extracting vast amounts of crude oil. BP previously held four shared exploration leases in the Bight, though in 2016 it abandoned its plans to drill exploratory wells, and in 2017 handed over full control of its leases to Equinor.Chevron also abandoned its drilling plans in 2017. At present, Equinor is planning on drilling its first exploration well, Stromlo-1, in late 2019.4

The extraordinary marine biodiversity found in the waters of the Bight may be reason enough for conservationists and environmental advocates alike to campaign against the proposed deep-sea drilling in this region. For those who are not swayed by marine conservation-centric arguments, however, perhaps the knowledge of the potentially catastrophic consequences of such drilling will invoke a terrifying reality. The worst credible case discharge (WCCD) oil spill modelling commissioned by both BP and Equinor has provided an insight into what an oil spill in the Bight might look like. For those who remember the BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, you may recall that it was one of the worst oil spills in US history. For those who don’t, this tragedy began when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded when drilling an exploration well. The leak that eventuated took eighty-seven days to cap and released approximately four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.This event occurred in relatively calm waters; the oceanic swell in the Bight, however, is above three metres for most of the year, with a maximum average swell of 11.3 metres.In a WCCD analysis in 2016, BP estimated the flow rate from uncontrolled blowout in the Bight to be approximately 54,000 barrels per day; if Stromlo-1 were to leak for 149 days—the estimated time it would take to drill a relief well—this would result in “a total discharge of 7.9 million bbls [barrels of] oil… Importantly, this would be approx. twice the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.”Equinor’s WCCD modelling predicts a slightly less-disastrous outcome, estimating a flow rate of more than 42,000 barrels per day for 102 days, totalling 4.32 million barrels.Perhaps one of the more compelling findings in this WCCD modelling, however, is the potential scope of the spill; Equinor estimates that the oil from a worst-case discharge—taking into account several different spill models—could span the coastline from Albany in WA all the way around to Port Macquarie in NSW.9

Maximum environment that may be affected by an unmitigated Worst Case Discharge oil spill, based on Equinor's stochastic modelling analysis of 100 possible oil spill trajectories. Credit: Greenpeace Australia Pacific
Maximum environment that may be affected by an unmitigated Worst Case Discharge oil spill, based on Equinor’s stochastic modelling analysis of 100 possible oil spill trajectories. Credit: Greenpeace Australia Pacific

 Aside from the substantial ecological damage that an oil spill in the Bight would cause, there are several other potential consequences to take into consideration.10 Many commercial and recreational fisheries operate within the waters of the Bight, and these fisheries are responsible for 25% of Australia’s total annual seafood production, providing $1.4 billion in annual revenue, and approximately $350 million in household income.11 Many of the communities along the southern coastline of Australia are therefore heavily reliant upon the Bight for their continued subsistence, and an oil spill in this region could be disastrous. Fisheries would need to close down for an extensive period of time in the event of a spill—potentially a year or more—over a sizeable area of potential oil exposure, and the tourism industry would suffer heavy losses, due to the many tourist sites dotted along the southern coastline. Many Traditional Owners also have strong cultural ties to this region, including the Mirning and Wirangu first-nations peoples. Furthermore, the Yalata Indigenous Protected Area spans a large part of the southern coastline of Australia, accounting for more than 456,000 hectares of limestone cliffs, coastal dunes, sand plains, and shrublands.12

The potential consequences of a devastating oil spill in the Great Australian Bight ought to be reason enough to deter any oil company from even considering a deep-sea drilling project in this region. The substantially-high rate of endemism in the Bight, as well as the many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians who rely heavily upon its waters and coastline for subsistence, means that the potential threat to life in the region is very large and very tangible. Opening up the Bight to deep-sea oil drilling projects in itself is yet another step toward the pressing reality the long-term effects of catastrophic climate change, let alone the imminent threat to such a unique marine ecosystem and a coastline that boasts thousands of years of cultural heritage. As such, it is up to us—as individuals, local communities, campaigning organisations, research networks, and conservationists—to work together if we are to win the fight for the Bight.


1. GABRP (2018) Great Australian Bight Research Program: Program Findings 2013-2017, BP, CSIRO, SARDI, Government of South Australia, University of Adelaide, Flinders University
2. Jonscher, S. (2018) ‘Great Australian Bight survey discovers 400 new marine species, catalogues marine biodiversity before oil drilling’ ABC News Website 
3. Steiner, R. (2018) Crude Intentions: Exposing the risks of drilling & spilling in the Great Australian Bight, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, pg. 7 
4. NOPSEMA (2019) Open for comment: Equinor Stromlo-1 exploration drilling program draft environment plan, NOPSEMA website
5. EPA (2017) Deepwater Horizon – BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, EPA website. https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/deepwater-horizon-bp-gulf-mexico-oil-spill
6. Equinor (2019) Environment Plan: Draft Environment Plan – Stromlo-1 Exploration Drilling Program, available at: Equinor ASA website, pg. 54
7. Steiner (2018) pg. 14
8. Ibid, pg. 14
9. Ibid, pg. 15
10. Ibid, pp. 28-32
11. Ibid, pg. 6
12. Australian Government (2013) Yalata Indigenous Protected Area, Australian Government: Department of the Environment website

Brett Morgan is a Research Assistant with the SEI project The Floor of Sydney Harbour. He completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours Class I) in 2017 from the University of Sydney, where he majored in Gender & Cultural Studies (Hons) and Philosophy. His thesis titled ‘Think Global, Reconfigure the Local: How Intermediaries Articulate Pro-Environmental Values and Practices’ explored the concept of the ‘pro-environmental intermediary’ within contemporary environmental discourse. Brett coined this concept in order to make sense of the role of agency within structural environmental problems, and examined the efficacy of this framework through two different case studies: Greenpeace’s ‘Save the Reef’ campaign, and the Inner-West Council’s ‘Home Eco Challenge.’

On the March 19, SEI is hosting a screening of the Greenpeace documentary Wild Waters, followed by an expert panel discussion to shine a light on the growing movement to keep Big Oil out of the Bight.