Australia’s major parties to audit offshore regulator’s decision on Great Australian Bight drilling

In the days leading up to the Australian federal election – scheduled for Saturday, May 18 – the Liberal Party of Australia has informed it will commission an independent audit of NOPSEMA’s, the country’s offshore regulator, current consideration of exploration in the Great Australian Bight.

The Great Australian Bight. Source: Equinor

Namely, Equinor’s plans for offshore exploration in the Great Australian Bight are currently being reviewed by the country’s independent offshore regulator, NOPSEMA.

The Liberal National Government said in a statement on Thursday it had recognized the importance of the Great Australian Bight and the surrounding region to local communities, and the fishing and tourism industries.

“The region is known for its unique environment and deserves strong protection,” the Liberal Party said in the statement, claiming that Australia has one of the safest regimes for offshore oil and gas in the world.

The industry is overseen by Australia’s independent regulator NOPSEMA (National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority), which was established on January 1, 2012.

“The Liberal National Government recognizes community concerns around drilling in the Great Australian Bight and community groups are seeking further assurance of environmental protection,” the party said.

The Liberal National Government will commission an independent audit, to be conducted by the Chief Scientist, to provide this additional level of assurance to the community.

According to the statement, the independent audit will be jointly commissioned by the Minister for Resources and the Minister for the Environment. The Chief Scientist will be asked to work with NOPSEMA to assure all environmental considerations are thoroughly considered as part of the assessment process and decision making of the independent regulator. The audit will be conducted in tandem with the assessment process.

Exploratory drilling proposals will continue to be assessed by NOPSEMA, which has an independent assessment process underway under Australian law.


Equinor’s drilling plans


To remind, Norway’s oil and gas giant Equinor in April filed an environment plan to Australian offshore regulator for its proposed petroleum drilling activity in the Great Australian Bight amid claims by environmental groups of it being too risky. Following the submission of the plan, NOPSEMA started the formal assessment of the plan, under which a proposed activity must be found to meet all legislative requirements to proceed.

Through its assessment, NOPSEMA said it would consider potential environmental impacts from the proposed activity to ensure appropriate precautions are taken. The regulator’s decision was initially expected by May 23, 2019.

Equinor Australia is the sole titleholder of exploration permit EPP39, located in the Ceduna Sub-basin in Commonwealth waters off southern Australia. As part of the permit commitment, Equinor plans to drill the Stromlo-1 exploration well, which is located approximately 400 km southwest of Ceduna and 476 km west of Port Lincoln and in a water depth of approximately 2,240 meters.

Equinor plans to spud the Stromlo-1 exploration well in late 2020. The duration of the drilling of the well is expected to be approximately 60 days.


Labor calls for study into oil spill impact 


Meanwhile, Australian Labor Party has also said that, if elected, one of its first acts will be to commission an independent scientific study into the impact of an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight. The purpose of the study will be to help inform the decision making of the independent regulator.

The Labor said that it will be an independent scientific study to increase the capacity of the independent regulator to properly make an assessment and that the study will report before the project is approved.

In a statement on Thursday, May 17 environmental organization Greenpeace welcomed the Labor Party’s new commitment that a Shorten Labor government would block Equinor’s oil drilling approval from proceeding in the Great Australian Bight until an independent scientific study into the impacts of an oil spill is completed.

Greenpeace senior campaigner Nathaniel Pelle said: “A stay of execution is welcome. But it’s clear a total ban on drilling in the Bight is warranted.”

He added: “The Labor Party has responded to the growing calls from international experts, surfers, the fishing industry, and everyday Australians who love our beaches, by delaying this dangerous proposal to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight pending an independent inquiry.”

“If Bill Shorten is elected on Saturday, and is truly committed to putting the environment before oil company profits, he’ll go one step further and rule the project out completely,” said Pelle.


Regulator delays decision 


While it was unclear at first how either of the parties’ proposals for independent studies would be done in practice, as NOPSEMA was initially expected to make its decision by May 23, the regulator issued a statement on Friday, May 17 changing the deadline.

In the statement the regulator said it was “unable to make a decision on their environment plan for proposed exploration drilling in the Great Australian Bight within the initial 30 day assessment period. The next decision point is now scheduled for 27 June 2019.”

The Great Australian Bight drilling plans have also been met with resistance by the Australian Greens and its Senator Sarah Hanson-Young who said that the party would not let “Australian tourism and fishing industries be put at risk for the sake of multinational corporate profits, no matter what spin Equinor tries to put on it.”

Offshore Energy Today Staff

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