School students in South Australia are routinely taught about the marine wonder that is the Great Australian Bight. The Bight is home to whales and sea lions, and is a favourite hunting ground of great white sharks. But today, a far more terrifying group of predators is hunting there: fossil fuel corporations.
Chief among these is Equinor (formerly Statoil). With the support of the federal government, Equinor has plans to commence oil drilling next year.
There is a killing to be made. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association estimates that up to 6 billion barrels of oil could be extracted over the next 40 years.
Drilling is widely opposed by coastal communities nervous about the risk of an oil spill. The memory of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico weighs heavily on their minds: the giant fireball, the workers killed in the disaster, the blackened beaches and paralysed animals.
Even the slightest industrial accident in the Bight would be an ecological disaster. The waters are deeper and wilder than the Gulf of Mexico. Wave heights in the Southern Ocean this year have reached more than 23 metres.
Such conditions could dislodge the floating platforms needed for deep water oil production, and spread oil and other waste throughout southern marine ecosystems and toward the Australian coast.
Don’t take my word for it. Earlier this year, BP was forced to release documents from its now-abandoned 2016 bid to drill in the Bight. Its modelling of a potential oil spill indicated that up to 750km of coastline – spanning from Western Australia to Tasmania and New South Wales – would be polluted.
Worst of all, this nightmare scenario was celebrated by BP. Oil spills in the Bight, it said, would provide “a welcome boost to local economies”.
So if an oil spill destroyed our ocean and coastline, South Australians would be expected to thank those responsible, BP or Equinor, for thoughtfully supplying us with jobs in the clean-up operation!
It’s absurd, but this logic is all too familiar in South Australia. Other environmental disasters such as nuclear waste dumps and fracking have been sold as the only path to economic prosperity for regional areas.
Likewise, the building of deadly military hardware, including submarines and frigates, is celebrated for the stimulation provided to the state’s economy.
By contrast, the suggestion that public transport, hospitals or schools should take priority over these destructive projects is dismissed or deemed economically unviable.
So while the rich and powerful ruin the planet with their bombs, toxic waste and pollution, it’s the rest of us who suffer the consequences and have to clean up the mess.
Oil drilling in the Bight would enrich Equinor, but potentially be a disaster for the rest of us.