Fight for the Bight

June 2017

The fight over exploration in the Great Australian Bight is far from over, with Norwegian company Statoil vowing to fill BP's place in the race for oil and gas.

The Great Australian Bight is still one of Australia's frontier basins for oil and gas, after several cycles of petroleum exploration since the late 1960s.

In 2007, a survey by Geoscience Australia found potential source rocks in the Ceduna Sub-basin, the most prospective part of the region, and this sparked renewed efforts by the Australian Government to generate interest in the region, including through its annual Offshore Petroleum Exploration Acreage Release Program.

Several exploration ventures gained exploration permits in the region, including Chevron Australia New Ventures, Murphy Australia Oil and Santos Offshore, Bight Petroleum, and Santos and Nippon Oil and Gas.

But the most prominent holder of exploration permits was BP Developments Australia, in a venture with a subsidiary of the Norwegian oil company Statoil - Statoil Australia Theta B.V.

And especially BP's exploration proposals were met with stiff resistance from environmental groups - also because of its unfortunate involvment in a disastrous oil spill in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

In late 2016 the company announced its retreat from the project. BP said that in the "current external environment" it was not able "to compete for capital investment with other upstream opportunities in its global portfolio in the foreseeable future".

But the company's exit does not mean the fight over the Bight is over.

In February this year, a Senate inquiry looked into a private member's bill from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young, which effectively proposed to shut down exploration in the Bight, affecting 11 active exploration permits, and some $200 million investment.

However, the inquiry recommended that the bill should not be passed as it would have resulted in the first offshore oil and gas moratorium in Australia, setting a signal of regulatory uncertainty and damaging Australia's reputation as a place for investments for oil and gas companies.

Another Senate committed into oil or gas production in the Bight - a re-adopted inquiry from 2016 - ended up in a deadlock. The chair of the inquiry, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told the ABC:

"There is clear concern from South Australians about what would happen if we allow [companies] to drill in the Great Australian Bight.

"I'm not going to give up the fight."

However, despite BP pulling out, Chevron expressed continued interest in going ahead with its deep sea drilling plans, although it has yet to complete a seismic survey of the region.

And most recently, the Norwegian company Statoil, which had a 30% equity share in BP’s-operated Bight Basin exploration permits, declared it would continue the offshore oil and gas exploration as the sole titleholder.

The Government has approved the company's request. Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Senator Matt Canavan said:

"BP’s decision not to proceed with exploration in the Bight was a disappointment for South Australians who want to see their economy grow. Statoil’s decision to undertake exploration is good news for the South Australian economy".

This latest development is a blow to the opposition to exploration in the Bight, which had just garnered momentum: a fim just released by activist group Sea Shepherd Australia - Operation Jeedara - documents the fight for the region, which is showcased as one of the world's last great big intact wilderness areas of the planet.

And the group saw itself as victor in the fight against BP, after the company's retreat from its exploration plans, which followed .

In light of recent events the celebration may have been premature.