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Up to five weeks wait for emergency cap for controversial Great Australian Bight oil well plan

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by September 30, 2016 General
Tom McIlroy

A 35-day delay to ship capping technology to Australia in the event of a major oil spill has prompted warnings the Great Australian Bight could suffer an environmental disaster to rival the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Tourism, fisheries and environmental groups have pledged to continue to fight plans by oil giant BP to dig two new wells of up to two kilometres deep in waters off the South Australian coastline, saying the project risks pristine oceans and vulnerable marine life. 

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Aussie oil spill worries

Memories have resurfaced of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill when a BP oil well exploded, with the company now wanting to build two in the Great Australian Bight.

Environmental assessments presented to the federal government’s offshore oil and gas regulator show in the event of a major oil spill from the wells, about 600 kilometres west of Port Lincoln and 350 kilometres south-west of Ceduna, BP plans to bring an oil well capping stack from Singapore, taking about five weeks. 

BP says buying a new capping stack to be based in the region would cost at least $15 million but require up to a year in construction and testing time, while a facility and experts to complete regular maintenance and testing are not currently available in Australia. 

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in 2010. Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in 2010.  

The technology was developed after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico suffered a catastrophic blowout, causing 11 deaths and more than 4.9 million barrells of oil to hit marine habitats and shorelines across southern states. 

Greenpeace, the federal opposition and the Greens have questioned the project, while South Australian independent Nick Xenophon recently moved to have a Senate inquiry re-established. 

BP said in March exploration in the Great Australian Bight would provide a significant boost to the Australian economy and create jobs.

While a commercial discovery has yet to be made, the company estimates said the Bight could rival oil and gas output from the Bass Strait, Victoria’s Gippsland and Western Australia’s North West Shelf.

BP's cap and containment equipment in Singapore. BP’s cap and containment equipment in Singapore. Photo: supplied

One estimate said the potential scale could be more than 20 times the entire Australian oil production in 2014, while the company said it had improved technology, staff training and processes since Deepwater Horizon.

Warning against inadequate contingency plans in the event of a spill, the South Australian Oyster Growers Association said any large-scale spill could see local industries and businesses crippled.

Association president Judd Evans said two years of consultation with BP has been “a tick-the-box process”.

Environmental modelling showed a 100 per cent chance of oil from a spill reaching the shoreline and making contact with oyster growing areas within 10 days, prompting calls for a capping stack to be based closer to the wells to cut down on the 35-day delay. 

“The coast of South Australia is one of the most pristine environments in the world and the South Australia’s Seafood industries unique point of difference on the world stage,” Mr Evans said. 

“The United States government recognised the importance of the Arctic environment and advised Shell that for their application to drill to be approved they required the capping device to be located on the drilling permit site.

“The oyster industry expects the same for BP in the Great Australian Bight.”

Mr Evans said more than 6500 boats were used in the Deepwater Horizon clean-up, while as few as 20 boats could be used in the event of a spill in the Bight due to the water’s depth.

This week Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority requested more environmental information from BP about the controversial plan, delaying consideration of the full application until at least late October.

It is the third delay for the project’s environmental plan, which has already been rejected twice.

Kangaroo Island mayor Peter Clements told the regulator his community and others on the coastline were opposed to drilling in the Bight. 

“There is no level of risk capable of realistically including the oil and gas drilling plans for the Great Australian Bight,” he said.  

“It is unchartered territory using unproven technology by companies that can and have abrogated their responsibility to Australia and the global community in the past.” 

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