Norwegian state-owned oil company, Equinor, has been granted environmental approval to drill in the Great Australian Bight off the coast of South Australia, with plans to start exploration drilling by the end of 2020.

Although the company was recommended to consult with Aboriginal groups in the area, as yet there has been no confirmation that any contact has been made.

The Australian regulatory body, National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Authority (NOPSEMA), granted the licence in late 2019 despite more than 30,000 submissions to Equinor’s environmental impact report, published in February 2019.

In response to the report, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation (DPCAAR) suggested the Norwegian company consult with all coastal Indigenous groups in South Australia, rather than exclusively the Native Title holders, and create employment opportunities for Indigenous people.

“[DPCAAR feels] it is important that Aboriginal communities with coastal land in SA have an opportunity to be consulted about and comment on Equinor’s proposal,” the response read.

“We are interested in learning more about the Aboriginal employment program mooted by Equinor.”

Equinor responded, saying it would make contact with key Aboriginal groups in the area in the following four to six weeks, from February 2019.

“Equinor is progressing engagement with coastal Aboriginal communities so they are informed,” the response said.

A report from the University of Sydney and Sydney Environment Institute, Special Submission to NOPSEMA on the proposed Equinor Stromlo1 Drilling Program in the Great Australian Bight, said that as of midway through last year, no Indigenous groups had been consulted.

“It is particularly egregious that Equinor has failed to consult any Indigenous organisations despite numerous Indigenous claimants holding sea and land title claims to coastal waters and land that may be affected by a spill,” the report stated.

“However, Equinor does not consider Aboriginal groups as ‘relevant persons’ for the purpose of consultation.”

The report also explained the cultural significance of drilling in the Bight and the importance for Indigenous Peoples of the area.

“It is well known in South Australia that for the Mirning Nation whales have an important cultural significance that alone ought to be sufficient to count Mirning Elders as relevant.”

Mirning Elder and Whale Song man, Uncle Bunna Lawrie is concerned about the impact the potential approval of the drilling program will have on the area.

Uncle Bunna is a frequent commentator in videos on the Great Australian Bight Alliance Facebook page and a strong advocate against drilling in the Bight.

“It is my job to protect the whales … I say to you Equinor, you are not welcome in the Great Australia Bight.”

Activists and environmentalist have voiced their outrage against drilling in the Bight at protests held throughout the coast of South Australia, prior to approval being handed down in December 2019.

The drilling program looks to happen 370 kilometres off the shore of South Australia, with Equinor saying the Bight “could be one of Australia’s largest untapped oil reserves”.

Australia’s east coast is facing a gas shortage crisis in 2021, yet most of the country’s natural gas is exported, rather than filling the domestic market.

Equinor was contacted for comment but did not respond by time of publication.

By Caris Duncan