Equinor files environment plan for Great Australian Bight drilling

Norwegian oil and gas company Equinor has submitted 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. 

The Great Australian Bight. Source: Equinor

On Tuesday, April 23, 2019, NOPSEMA received the environment plan from Equinor. NOPSEMA said it will now start its formal assessment of the plan, under which a proposed activity must be found to meet all legislative requirements to proceed.

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

To remind, Equinor released its draft Environment Plan (EP) for the proposed Stromlo-1 exploration drilling program in permit EPP 39 in the Great Australian Bight for public comment on February 19, 2019.

The draft EP was the result of more than two years of preparation and it was also the first time a draft EP for an offshore exploration well was published before submission and assessment by the regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).

The public comment period on Equinor’s draft environment plan was closed for submissions on March 21 and NOPSEMA received more than 30,000 submissions during the period.


Equinor’s GAB drilling plans


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.

The well will be drilled using a mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) supported by three offshore vessels and helicopters. The support vessels will resupply the MODU from the supply base at Port Adelaide while the helicopters will operate from Ceduna. The preferred drilling period is between November and February when weather conditions are more conducive to fast and efficient drilling.

The EP activity period for drilling the Stromlo-1 well is between October 1 and May 31. Once accepted, Equinor will be permitted to drill the Stromlo-1 well during a five-year validity period of the EP. Drilling the Stomlo-1 well outside the activity period will not be permitted under this EP.

The Stromlo-1 well will not be cored or production tested for hydrocarbons in the event of a discovery. Once the well has been drilled, it will be permanently plugged and abandoned. The results will be evaluated prior to determining whether to proceed with appraisal or further exploration.

It is worth reminding that Equinor took over the exploration permit EPP39 from BP in June 2017. Before swapping its interest in offshore exploration permit EPP39 and EPP40 for interests in EPP37 and EPP38 with Equinor, BP had planned to drill four wells at the Great Australian Bight but the drilling program was rejected by the offshore regulator. BP then submitted another drilling program, proposing to drill two wells, the Whinham-1 and Stromlo-1.

All the while, the project had been under fire from the environmentalist groups, such as Greenpeace and Australian Greens. The environmentalists had claimed that drilling in the area containing a marine park would threaten marine life, fisheries, and eco-tourism operators.

In the end, BP in October 2016 gave up on its drilling program in the Great Australian Bight, citing a new upstream strategy with focus on opportunities likely to create value in the near to medium term as the reason behind its abandonment.

In October 2017, Chevron also ditched its Great Australian Bight exploration program due to its inability “to compete in the current low oil price environment.” Chevron denied that its decision had anything to do with the government policy, regulatory, community or environmental concerns, pointing out that it was a commercial decision.


‘Bight too precious’ for drilling


Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, representing the Australian Greens, has been an opponent of drilling in the Great Australian Bight for a while now.

Following Equinor’s release of the draft environment plan in February, Hanson-Young said: “We are not prepared to let South 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. The reality is the Bight is too precious to risk. Drilling for oil in the middle of a whale sanctuary is madness.”

She also added: “Instead of opening up another oilfield, Australia should be showing the world how great the Bight is. It is home to some of the most unique wildlife in the world – 85 per cent of marine life found in the Bight is found nowhere else. The Greens are pursuing World Heritage protection for the Bight, supporting our jobs in tourism and fisheries, and our beautiful Kangaroo Island over big oil.

“Labor and the Liberals want to risk all we love about the Bight to do the bidding of the oil and gas industry. The 73 per cent of South Australians who want World Heritage protection for the Great Australian Bight can have faith that the Greens are fighting with them to protect the Bight and stop this project.”

Following Equinor’s submission of the plan to NOPSEMA, environmental organization Greenpeace said on Wednesday that Equinor’s plan to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight would be illegal in Norway.

Professor Tina Soliman Hunter, Director of the Centre for Energy Law at the University of Aberdeen, who last week published a report on Equinor’s proposal to drill the Bight, has described the proposal as, “exceptional in terms of the risk of a drilling accident occurring, and the difficulties in responding to an incident”.

“Equinor’s proposal for response measures in the case of a loss of well control in the Great Australian Bight wouldn’t be permitted by the Norwegian regulator”, Professor Hunter said.

“I do not have confidence in Equinor’s plan nor NOPSEMA’s capacity to prevent a well blowout in the Great Australian Bight,” Professor Soliman Hunter said.

Offshore Energy Today Staff

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