With plans for Olympic Dam on hold, mining prosperity could lie off the coast of Kangaroo Island. But does the benefit outweigh the cost?
For Kangaroo Island Mayor Jayne Bates watching dolphins and whales loll in seawaters is an everyday occurrence. It is so regular she can actually time when a pod of dolphins pass her seaside home in the morning.
“You become a bit blase about it, you think it is the norm and of course it’s not for a lot of people,” she says. “We have a lot of whales sail all around the island both north coast and south coast.”
An island resident for 40 years she became Mayor six years ago and has seen issues divide the Island, but now, for the first time, they are united. Bight Petroleum has applied for Federal Government approval to undergo seismic surveying just 100 kilometres off the Island’s south west coast. To find out about their intentions, the Council invited Bight’s Chief Operating Officer Ian MacDougall to the island in June.
“(We) said to Bight what we want you to do is set the bar high,” recalls Mayor Bates. “There is every risk for the island for a negative impact and there is no positive upside.”
The Council asked to work with Bight on their environmental plans that were submitted last month to the Federal Department of Environment. However Mayor Bates expressed disappointment at only receiving a letter just a month ago. According to MacDougall they have contacted around 76 stakeholders since last October and had meetings with various NGO’s.
“For those that have requested the EPBCA referral, rather than find it on the website we’ve actually sent them a copy,” MacDougall says.
According to MacDougall, Bight plans to conduct 3D seismic surveying in the first quarter of 2013 in the Kangaroo Island Pools. They will then apply for approval for exploration drilling in 2015. Should they be successful they could be extracting up to $10 billion worth of oil, having the same economic impact to South Australia as Olympic Dam.
Surveying is not new to this area, it began in 1960 and six wells have been drilled since. While they were dry they showed signs of a working hydrocarbon system.
However vast amounts of oil is not the only unique aspect to the Pools.
“It’s one of only three blue whale feeding areas in all Australian waters,” International Fund for Animal Welfare Project Officer Matt Collis says.
He believes there is not enough research on the impacts of surveying on the marine environment and Dr Peter Gill of Blue Whale Study agrees. He has been studying the endangered species for 14 years and in that time has seen Federal funding for research dry up. They were approached by Bight to conduct aerial surveys of the area to monitor the whales for which he also spotted another six species.
“We’ve found (Bight) to be one of the more progressive and interested companies that we’ve dealt with,” Dr Gill insists.
“They’re operating in that area where in the past we have seen large numbers of blue whales at times and none at others. So it’s a gamble they’re taking.”
3D seismic surveying entails a sound source sending pulses 24 hours a day in to the ocean. It stops only when a whale is spotted within three kilometres, for bad weather or when the ship is turning. While there is a shut down rule when whales are spotted, Dr Gill believes blue whales can hear sounds possibly hundreds of kilometres away.
“There is no real scientific basis for 3threekilometres, in other parts of the world that range is 500 metres,” he says. “In Australia that’s been pushed out through the efforts of scientists and NGO’s who advocated for a more cautious approach.”
Dr Gill believes whales may be sensitive to these noises and can risk hearing damage if exposed to them for too long. He concedes: “With a lot of these things you don’t know if there’s an impact until it is too late.”
Bight does have mitigation measures in place that include starting pulses at a low level and marine mammal observers on board. But while they balance any environmental impact and a demand for oil, the Greens are calling for a more transparent process.
“One of the concerns about the actual process is that there was no community consultation over which areas are to be released for oil and gas exploration,” Senator Penny Wright argues.
She believes there is a great risk to the Kangaroo Island community of an oil spill should exploration move to drilling. The Greens are calling on the Federal Government to revoke the mining lease or declare all work a controlled action.
Bight’s application is currently with the Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke and his final decision will be made on the 20th of this month. Kangaroo Island is Australia’s eighth most recognised regional tourist destination. Home to more than 4500 residents, tourism and agriculture, including fishing, are the main employers for the Island.
Mayor Bates acknowledges Bight is responding to a worldwide demand for oil, she is just asking that they do it “carefully and with consideration to the environment around them”.