The Equinor project has died in the Bight; it would be better to have a post mortem and inquest now rather than exhumation of the corpse when the Bight or other fragile coastal waters are threatened once more.
The development was supported by both major parties state and federal and approved by NOPSEMA which according to APPEA must have seen through the “extreme campaign of false and exaggerated claims that deliberately overstated the risks and ignored the potential benefits”.
APPEA is on dangerous ground here for much of the campaign was based on medical and scientific facts which were not in the terms of reference for NOPSEMA hence their approval. Let us look at some of these issues.
Climate change was not considered by NOPSEMA; this is itself indicates this approval system needs review. The government has seen the long-predicted impacts on Australia of climate change from a one degree warming and yet remains indolent on effective action
As the IPCC (2018) report states:
“Limiting warming to 1.5°C implies reaching net-zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050 and concurrent deep reductions in emissions of non-CO2 forcers, particularly methane (high confidence)”.
The oil and gas industries are the main cause of rising methane levels internationally and in Australia where the recent domestic emissions show a steep rise
This issue is conveniently avoided by the government and opposition for it would necessitate drastic 2030 emission targets because of the impact of methane as a short-acting forcer in the next two decades. It also avoids consideration of Scope 3 emissions which are becoming a symbol of international cooperation and a trade issue.
Embarrassingly for the government, Equinor’s withdrawal from the Bight is seemingly because of its need to reduce Scope 3 emissions to fulfil commitments made by European oil companies.
The main omission of the NOPSEMA approval process was a failure to consider health impacts of either climate change or from a spill affecting surrounding communities. The company said in effect that a spill was so remote it didn’t need consideration.
We note that the assessment by NOPSEMA needs to find impacts on the environment to be “acceptable” as defined by the ALARP principle that the residual risk shall be reduced as far as reasonably practicable.
Instead, it would be appropriate to use the Wingspread Declaration on the Precautionary Principle. This can be summarised as: ‘when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof’
The Bight is so important to the sustainability of Australia that the risk of an oil spill cannot be entertained because the ecological impacts on the waters of the Bight will compromise a sustainable fishing industry and the health effects on surrounding communities would be considerable and long standing.
The health impacts are listed in a Fact Sheet from Doctors for the Environment Australia and their causations receive scientific support from the long term presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which were found for decades after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 spill in the USA and which are ubiquitous in oil and gas extraction
They have toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic properties and are highly fat-soluble and pass through living membrane systems to remain in seagrasses. The Bight is known to have one of the largest seagrass systems in the world. In the food chain, they may contaminate fish and cause kills thus depleting fishing industry stock, and fish may remain contaminated for years. This possibility was noted by Equinor but was downgraded due to “weathering.”
NOPSEMA is “the independent expert regulator for health and safety, environmental management, structural and well integrity for offshore petroleum facilities and activities in Commonwealth waters.”
NOPESMA’s requirements make no mention of climate change, individual or community heath impacts, or adverse economic outcomes, or their alleviation.
It is essential that the role of NOPSEMA be reviewed with the intent of making it a guardian of an environmentally sustainable future for Australia.
However, its “Environmental management” requires endorsement under the EPBC Act, last given in 2014 and to be reviewed this year.
The EPBC Act is currently under review and until it is reformed to reflect the need for sustainability, there is little hope of reform of NOPSEMA. Obviously such review would include the composition of the Committee which has no marine ecologist, no health expert and no expert on climate change progression or modelling.
It is too much to hope that this government in reviewing the EPBC Act with the intent of “cutting green tape”, will recognize the primacy of environmental issues?
In terms of oil exploration the government continues to operate an Orwellian Animal farm in which four-legged rigs have precedent over two legged humans.
David Shearman AM PhD FRACP is a founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University.