Brian Jeffriess, right, is concerned about the impact that Equinor’s plans could have on locals. (ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)
After months of fierce community debate, Port Lincoln City Council on South Australia’s West Coast has become the 13th local council to oppose drilling in the Great Australian Bight.
The council’s formal opposition has no direct impact on whether or not drilling precedes, but the debate and council’s stance has divided the community.
“The community and certainly the council has had a fair go at this,” Mayor Bruce Green said after the vote.
“We have had some to-ing and fro-ing on it and now we have a position. It’s nice to clear the air a little bit.”
The issue has seen the community hold a special council meeting on the topic, host regular visits from oil company Equinor representatives, attend a drop-in session with the regulator, and environmental groups have held film screenings to galvanise opposition.
There have also been regular flare-ups on social media.
Community members protest Equinor’s plans outside of a meeting on the Eyre Peninsula between the oil company and stakeholders. (Supplied: Anna Taylor)
Division within the community
The motion was passed by the council in a 5–4 vote, reflecting the community’s own division.
Supporters of oil exploration say it could bring new industries to a community that is seeing sluggish growth as its traditional industries change.
“We have relied on the fishing and farming industries for our employment and growth for a very long time,” councillor Neville Starke said at the meeting.
“Thanks to mechanisation, computerisation and quotas the fishing industry will not employ more people.
“The same for the faming industry, with less farmers, more efficient operating and seasonal operating due to climate change.
“We must keep our options open for future growth and employment.”
Those opposed said that drilling poses a direct threat to the “seafood capital of Australia’s” thriving aquaculture industries that rely on the Bight to operate.
According to the Port Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, Port Lincoln’s aquaculture industry accounts for 5,100 jobs in the city of 16,000 people.
Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry association chief executive Brian Jeffriess, sees drilling in the Bight as a direct threat to not just tuna, but all of the city’s aquaculture.
“The seafood industry is an expanding, renewable industry that’s also a big employer and value-added industry under threat from an extractive industry with a short life span that definitly poses a huge risk,” he said.
“An oil spill would mean the end of the tuna industry.”
Over 250 members from the community of Port Lincoln gathered at a local theatre for a special meeting of council on drilling in the Great Australian Bight. (ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)
A question of impact
Several oil companies have hoped to drill in the Bight since 2011, but it is the most recent proposal from Norwegian oil company Equinor that has energised the current debates and encouraged the community to declare its position.
Equinor became the owner and operator of an exploration permit in 2017 and is currently developing an environmental plan for the regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), for a 60-day exploration program.
NOPSEMA said that it considers community sentiment during its approval process and because of this, those who are opposed to Equinor’s plans consider this a crucial time to express their concerns.
“Anyone who suggests that local councils don’t have a right to stand up for their community and advocate for protecting local business, local industry and the environment are really just silly,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.
Others, like councillor Peter Jolley believe, “It’s not the business of council, it’s not the business of State, it’s a Commonwealth issue. We have no say in this, we have no right to have a say in this.”
This division has been reflected in this history of council’s relationship with this issue.
This was the second time the council voted on a motion to oppose drilling in the Bight.
The first called for a total ban on drilling in the Great Australian Bight and was lost in a 5–4 vote when Mr Green, one of the community’s most vocal advocates for oil exploration, cast the tie-breaking vote.
The motion that passed was a softer one, calling on council to “stand with the fishing and tourism industries in opposing drilling”.
Once Equinor’s environment plan is finalised by the company, it will open it up to four weeks of public comment before submitting the plan to NOPSEMA for assessment.
“Equinor is committed to the safety of people and the environment,” Equinor’s Australia manager Jacques-Etienne Michel said.
“We will only undertake an activity if it can be done safely and with the approval of the independent regulator who ensures compliance with Australia’s strict environmental protection laws.
“We have now met with 120 organisations representing a broad cross-section of the community.
“We appreciate there are a range of views on exploration for oil and gas and people are keen to learn how our operations protect the environment.”