ACT NOW: Help stop destructive test drilling in the Otway basin
Big Oil and Gas have announced plans to start test-drilling for gas deep beneath the seafloor in the Otway basin, between Victoria and Tasmania.
Industry modelling shows a spill could reach the coastlines of Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
We only have until 18 December to submit public comments to the federal government regulator, NOPSEMA, calling on them to reject this risky test drilling proposal.
Read the letter text
I am providing Public Comment regarding the Otway Exploration Drilling Program RMS ID 7618 submitted by ConocoPhillips Australia.
I am concerned that the proposal to conduct test drilling for gas exploration in our oceans between Tasmania and Victoria may cause direct harm to ocean ecosystems, marine life and exacerbate climate change. The proposed 6 test drilling wells, and associated vertical seismic blasting at each well, are stepping stones to fossil gas extraction. Such plans are incompatible with global efforts to limit warming to 1.5℃. The Environment Plan (EP) for this gas drilling proposal should be rejected outright.
The EP submitted to NOPSEMA by ConocoPhillips is lacking in sufficient detail on the locations of the 6 proposed test drilling locations, and associated vessel movements in state and commonwealth waters. As a result this EP fails to provide adequate details of the risks and mitigation measures for impacts on noted endangered species, such as blue and southern right whales in the area, in a way that fulfils the ability to understand if risks have been mitigated to As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP) requirements. Not having detailed information on where the gas drilling sites will be located, and the specific type of drill rig to be used, and its ability to rapidly deploy mitigation measures in the event of a Loss of Wellhead Control, should result in this EP being refused.
The EP fails to provide sufficient details on what measures will be taken to avoid harming marine life, and enforceable measures to ensure that the key ecological features and threatened species in these areas will not be harmed. The information provided in this EP has broken up each potential risk and harm into disaggregated possibilities and mitigations, which fails to consider and detail the cumulative impacts of harms from sound pollution, light pollution, hydrocarbon spills and effects of flaring gas from these 6 proposed drill sites. This EP needs to be refused outright as the impacts to our ocean environment and marine life have not been adequately mapped or detailed, or adequate information on measures to mitigate impact.
The marine life of our south east oceans are unique and under increasing threat from the expansion of the offshore oil and gas industry, including through vertical seismic blasting exploration and drilling for fossil fuels such as proposed by ConocoPhillips in this plan. Evidence that seismic blasting harms marine life is growing. Research has shown that seismic blasting can result in serious harm to a variety of marine life, from deafening whales and disrupting their feeding and migration, damaging the ability of southern rock lobster to function and navigate, and causing mortality in small fish and zooplankton. After seismic blasts, many zooplankton can be found dead as far away as 1.2 kilometres from the blast site, and potentially further.(1)
Impacts on whale species
Throughout the year, the nominated areas of the Otway Basin are thought to have resident populations of blue whales, and a variety of species of whales and dolphins present during their migration routes. Within the two proposed lease areas of ViC/P79 AND T/49P, 27 species of cetaceans are known to inhabit and migrate through the nominated Operational Area including the endangered pygmy blue whale and southern right whale.
The proposed start date for this seabed survey to commence is January 2024, with the earliest date for drilling to start being April 2024, running through to December 2028. This four-year window could result in every species known to inhabit and migrate through the area intersecting at some point with the seabed survey, and the associated vessel traffic, vertical seismic blasting and drilling proposed in whale habitat, calving grounds and Biologically Important Areas (BIA), threatening species listed on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), and critical feeding, calving and migration routes.
– September through to December is known feeding period for the EPBC listed endangered blue whale, with January through to June being the peak feeding time for the blue whale.
– October is the calving period for the EPBC listed endangered southern right whale in this region, and they will be migrating through the OA and nominated area around these calving periods.
– May – September is peak breeding and calving period for southern right whales in the Otway Basin.
– November – May is feeding period for the sei whale, known in the area.
– November – May is feeding period for the minke whale, known in the area.
I am concerned that conducting vertical seismic blasting as part of test drilling during known periods of presence for these identified species, is likely to lead to harm and disruption in navigation, feeding and breeding activities of cetaceans in the area.
This EP fails to provide information on the scale of these risks, and how they will be mitigated to protect these species.
Further, the EP does not include basic marine mammal spotter operations such as using spotter planes for cetaceans every day that vertical seismic blasting, marine bed surveys and drilling are proposed in order to provide a 10km sighting zone. At the very minimum, ConocoPhillips must be required to use spotter planes for marine mammals, such as cetaceans, in these operational periods. Based on the failures to adequately avoid impacting cetaceans in the Operating Area, this EP should be refused.
Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area
Based on modelling by ConocoPhillips of potential impacts of a Loss of Wellhead Control at any of the proposed 6 test drill sites, the entire coastal area of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) is at risk from pollution and harm. This includes listed species that inhabit or migrate through the coastal areas of the TWWHA, and coastal areas of significant cultural value where aboriginal art and middens are recorded.
This poses an unacceptable risk to the World Heritage values of the areas that ConocoPhillips have identified are at risk in multiple spill scenarios, with disastrous impacts on marine environments, coastal ecosystems and the cultural heritage values of beach middens and aboriginal artefacts in the area.
ConocoPhillips has failed to provide sufficient information as to their mitigation measures that would prove ALARP has been met, and as a result this EP should be refused by NOPSEMA.
Impacts on Marine Parks
The areas in which 6 proposed, yet undisclosed, drill locations could occur includes parts of the Zeehan Marine Park off the NW coast of Tasmania. The EP fails to provide any information on where these proposed drill sites will be or address the ecological significance of this Commonwealth Marine Park and the species known to inhabit it. The EP fails to provide sufficient details on the impacts that vertical seismic blasting that is proposed at each of the 6 test wells will have on noise sensitive animals, such as whales and dolphins.
The EP excludes any information on vessel traffic involved with supporting and supplying this project and does not provide details on risks and threats of associated vessel traffic to and from these proposed drill sites.
The EP fails to provide sufficient information on risks to the marine park and its unique environmental values from drilling operation, and any associated pollution that comes with these proposed drill sites will have on the species known to be in the area of the Zeehan Marine Park during projected operational periods.
The EP shows there is an unacceptable level of risk and impact on our marine parks, both from the immediate vertical seismic blasting, vessel traffic including the drill rig, drilling operations, and impact of hydrocarbon spills as shown in the EMBA map will have on the Zeehan Marine Park.
The risks and impacts on the other state and Commonwealth Marine Parks that would be impacted as demonstrated in the EMBA modelling of any hydrocarbon spills from this proposal must be provided in more detail, specifically mitigation and clean up measures. Marine Parks should be wholly protected from all new exploration and mining activities for fossil fuels, and based on the real and present risks to Marine Parks from test drilling demonstrated in this EP, NOPSEMA should refuse ConocoPhillips’ EP.
Environments that May Be Affected (EMBA)
The Environment that may Be Affected (EMBA) for this project shows vast areas would be harmed by any spills or incidents during proposed operations from the projected 6 drilling sites, as well as any time vessels are in the area preparing for vertical seismic blasting, refuelling, resupplying or in transit. This includes 34 threatened and migratory species identified as having important habitat that overlaps with either the OA of the two project locations and/or the EMBA.
The EP fails to provide comprehensive information on the impacts of this project and modelled spills on World Heritage Areas, Ramsar areas, National Parks, State Marine Parks, Indigenous Protected Areas, Wilderness Zone, Key Ecological Features that would be impacted by the modelled hydrocarbon spills, and other impacts from vessel movements and drilling.
The entire footprint of the EMBA modelling on where oil/gas spill would impact, contains Biologically Important Areas for EPBC listed species, which must be provided for public consultation and comment. Despite the level of threat to many species and ecosystems, a detailed map showing proposed drill sites that would inform the extent of a proposed spill and ALARP measurements of these threats is not available in this EP.
ConocoPhillips needs to supply clear information on this critical matter of a test drilling project to allow fully informed public comment on the EP. Based on this lack of information which is the centerpiece of the entire project, this EP should be refused by NOPSEMA.
The EP by ConocoPhillips must be refused based on the failure to provide adequate information that is comprehensive and comprehensible to allow public comment on this proposal.
Cultural Heritage and Sea Country
I recognise the ongoing cultural connection to Sea Country practised by First Nations peoples in the communities connected to the oceans in which this proposal is targeted. I understand there has been a failure of the proponents to properly consult with representatives from Southern Ocean Protection Embassy Collective (SOPEC), founded by Gunditjmara people to protect Southern Ocean Sea Country, their whale ancestors and kin. Whale species including Koontapool, southern right whale, and Wuuloc, the pygmy blue whale, are sacred to the Gunditjmara and hold significance in their cultural practices.
In the modelling provided by ConocoPhillips of what areas would be affected by a hydrocarbon spill, it shows that the Gunditjmara people could be excluded from their coastal lands and sea country for any duration of a spill. If this spill were to take place during the southern right whale calving period from Oct to Nov, this would negatively impact the ability for people to undertake cultural practices of welcoming Kontapool (the southern right whale) back to Sea Country for their calving times. It would also harm southern right whales and potentially stop them from being able to calve in these waters without facing harm.
The EP must be refused as it fails Article 32, Item 2 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2). The introduction of the Protecting the Spirit of Sea Country Bill 2023 (3) into the Australian Parliament in August of 2023 further demonstrates this EP has not met the basic needs for First Nations and Sea Country Traditional Owner consultation.
I ask that NOPSEMA refuse the EP by ConocoPhillips to conduct test drilling for gas in the Otway Basin as it poses an unacceptable risk to our oceans, marine life and coastal communities. This EP is not complete, as it fails to provide comprehensive and comprehensible information to make an informed decision on the mitigation measures detailed which do not meet the standards to prove the risks have been reduced to meet the ALARP criteria.
1. University of Tasmania, 2023, New Research Reveals Impact Of Seismic Surveys On Zooplankton.
2. UN, 2018, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
3. Parliament of Australia, 2023, Protecting the Spirit of Sea Country Bill 2023.
Big Oil and Gas have announced plans to start test drilling for gas deep beneath the seafloor in the western Bass Strait. We only have until 18 December to submit public comments to the government regulator, NOPSEMA, calling on them to reject this risky test drilling proposal.