Surfers from across the country are mobilising in support of the whale people (Mirning) of South Australia who are fighting to prevent an oil drilling operation in the Great Australian Bight.
Norwegian-based company Equinor released an environmental impact statement last month, for a proposed oil drilling site 372 km off the coast of South Australia.
The document included a map showing the worst-case oil spill scenarios should something go wrong.
Indigenous elder and whale song man Bunna Lawrie said Equinor is “not welcome here”.
“Our responsibility is to treat the animals and the land with respect. We treat it as family. We’re all one being. Humans are supposed to be smarter than this,” Lawrie said.
In Torquay, Victoria, thousands of surfers initiated a paddle-out to protest the project, which is open for public comment until March 20. Paddle-outs took place across the country in support of the #fightforthebight campaign.
Critics of the plans say the ocean conditions are too rough in the Great Australian Bight to drill for oil.
“All it takes is one earthquake and we’re in big trouble. It opens a black hole that you can’t close,” Lawrie said.
Equinor believes it has ways to handle the rough seas and high winds, as it has learned from similar conditions faced in Norway’s waters.
Damien Cole is running as an Independent in Victoria in the upcoming federal election. He helped organise the Torquay paddle-out.
“It’s the final straw. Not in my backyard. Look around, we’re in the midst of a climate crisis. And we’ve got our own government allowing oil exploration in one of the most pristine ecosystems left in the world,” Cole said.
International clothing brand Patagonia supported the paddle out in Torquay. Patagonia’s Sean Doherty said the release of the spill modelling has awoken communities all the way up the east coast.
“I think seeing their town affected has turned them onto the issue where it might have seemed far away before,” Doherty said.
“It’s brought together all sorts of groups: fishing, Indigenous, surfers, people with different entry points to this issue.”
The World Surf League and 28 of Australia’s top-flight surfers have also thrown their support behind the issue.
“You’re not welcome,” former Championship Tour surfer Taj Burrow said on Instagram.
But Equinor Australia manager Jone Stangeland told WIN News that the likelihood of a spill occurring is next to zero.
“In the unlikely event of an oil spill, we would respond immediately,” Stangeland said.
The South Australian arm of the Wilderness Society is helping organise the messages from remote community groups along the South Australian coastline.
“We’ve been trying to protect the Bight for many years. BP pulled out, and Chevron pulled out, and now Equinor need to listen to the community on this one. They are not welcome,” Wilderness Society director Peter Owens said.
No cultural consideration
The environmental impact statement has been provided by Equinor to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) for review.
Doherty said once the public feedback period ends on March 20, the conversation will become less technical and more cultural.
Equinor are yet to publicly address the impact the oil rig would have on the Indigenous communities along the coast.
The Great Australian Bight has enormous cultural and environmental significance for the local Indigenous people, with southern right whales and humpback whales breeding in the Bight during the Australian winter.
This annual migration forms an important Dreamtime story. The whale is a beloved ancestor who helped shape the landscape when it came down from the stars.
In the sky, the whale is an all-powerful Rainbow Serpent associated with fire, earth energy, wind, water, sun, moon and the link for all these elements—the rainbow.
The whale is important because it embodies the essence of nature’s life force and fertility, most notably the fertility of the waters.
“There are a lot of sacred places out there [hundreds of kilometres into the Bight] that our people used, before the sea rose thousands of years ago,” Lawrie said.
A disaster in the waters off the Great Australian Bight would seriously harm the ability for whales to migrate to the area.
Lawrie said it’s all about responsibility.
“The dream is being custodians of this land. And this land can be there for future generations. But we have to protect it,” Lawrie said.
The surfing industry’s efforts to stop Equinor’s drilling project is built on a sense of responsibility for managing the land and on taking lessons from Indigenous practices.
“You look at the communities up and down the coast … we need to start treating this land as if it is our home. Because that is exactly what it is,” Cole said.
Campaigners are turning to their local, state and national politicians to check their position on the issue.
Equinor predicts a GDP growth of 6% for Australia if they do in fact find oil (the discovery of oil is not guaranteed); an increase of $5.9b GDP per year.
Politicians are mostly staying quiet on the issue. Doherty said Liberal and Labor candidates for the Torquay area have not commented on the issue.
“South Barwon, the district where Torquay is, is a hotly contested seat,” Doherty said.
“With the election looming, it’s not a vote winner. If anything, politicians think they can lose votes by making their stance clear.
“It was Labor who sold the licence in the first place in 2011. Even though the Liberals are pushing for it now. So, they both have their hands dirty,” he said.
The National Indigenous Times approached the Member for Flinders (a key South Australian Federal seat), Greg Hunt, for comment but he declined an interview. NIT also approached the federal Environment Minister Melissa Price, but we are yet to receive a response.
Resources Minister Matt Canavan spoke to ABC radio this week about the comparisons to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico known as Deepwater Horizon.
“The well that was being drilled by Deepwater Horizon was over ten kilometres deep compare to just over two kilometres that Equinor is proposing here,” Canavan said.
Canavan’s facts were wrong, however.
The total depth is around 4.9 kilometres.
The seabed at the proposed drilling site in the Great Australian Bight is at a depth of 2,239 metres and Equinor’s environmental statement says, “We believe there could be a petroleum-based resource about 2,700m below the seabed.”
The Deepwater Horizon site, according a national commission set up to investigate the incident, had a total of 5.5 kilometres (1.5km of Gulf water and over 4km under the seabed).
What’s coming up?
Bunna Lawrie is working with whale song tribes from WA to Sydney to have their voices heard as a decision is made on whether the drilling will go ahead.
Cole is organising another large paddle-out at Burleigh Heads in Queensland, which he says could surpass the number of participants seen in Torquay.
Doherty said his focus is on mobilising the surf community, who have a lot of pull in our coastal regions.
By Keiran Deck