Out of sight, out of mind: offshore drilling in the Bass Strait and Otway Basin

In October 2023, the Bass Strait and Otway Basin will become the next frontier for offshore oil and gas exploration. Spanning from the coast of Warrnambool to Currie, the licenses cover over 7.7 million hectares of ocean. The offshore gasfields that are currently in production have been dubbed Casino-Henry, Geographe, Halladale, Speculant, Yolla and Thylacine. The irony is strong: the oilfields are named after the Thylacine, the famously extinct Tasmanian tiger, and Yolla, the Palawa kani word for short-tailed shearwaters—birds which have of late been washing up on the beaches of King Island with plastic in their guts.

While the imperative to keep oil and gas in the ground couldn’t be clearer, offshore exploration itself is very much out of sight, out of mind. As a result, the language of these projects can be bewildering to ordinary people. . Undersea resources are still termed ‘gasfields’, and are located in undersea ‘basins’, as on land. The source of oil and gas resources in the Otway are seismic shifts that have been dubbed ‘unconformity-bound seismic supersequences’, rifts that formed in slippages during the separation from Antarctica and Gondwana in the late Jurassic period. Many of these are found in an ‘orogeny’, an underwater mountain range formed by the folding of the earth’s crust.

The language of drilling infrastructure is even more confusing to the layperson. ‘Umbilicals’ is the term for the nodes which transport controls, electricity, fibre-optic signals and chemical injection fluids between the surface and seafloor units. Rather than landmarks, specific underwater regions are identified under the markers ‘Shipwreck Trough’, ‘Mussel Hinge Zone’ and ‘Torquay Sub-Basin’. The drilling platforms have to be able to withstand the choppy waters of Bass Strait; these are termed ‘harsh environment semi-submersible rigs’.

The process is similarly obscure. In basic terms, for offshore exploration to occur, a drill rig is towed by a boat to the site, where anchors are dropped and a drill ‘string’ line lowered to the seabed. The drill bit and casing are then constructed underground beneath the water, forming the ‘well’ where the extraction occurs. These wells are typically abandoned when the oil and gas is finished being extracted, when the rig platform is towed to the next well.

The technique used in the exploration phase is called ‘vertical seismic profiling’ and allows companies to map oil and gas resources by drilling into the seabed and sending out vibrations underground. This is a quieter process than seismic blasting—which involves setting off airguns underwater at hundreds of decibels—and less intrusive to animals that rely on echolocation. The exploration sites include the Bonney Upwelling, a biodiversity hotspot that stretches from Portland in Victoria to Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Each year from November to May, the warm, southward currents of the Indian Ocean meet with the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Southern Ocean. A range of species regularly migrate through the Upwelling to breed, including whales of the blue, humpback, minke, southern right and fin variety, loggerhead turtles, dolphins, rock lobster and squid.

Worryingly, the Otway Basin is also home to historic ordnance dumps, including unused explosives deposited post-World War II. ConocoPhillips has consulted with the Commonwealth Department of Defence, whose assessment concluded that these waste materials could pose a ‘moderate’ risk to production if full-scale drilling were to go ahead.

Despite exploration taking place mere tens of kilometres from the coast of King Island, the areas under license are not Tasmanian waters but Commonwealth territory. The exploration licenses are overseen by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). In the past, the federal body has not been perhaps as distant as it should be with the companies it is tasked with regulating, with NOPSEMA’s previous chief executive Stuart Smith attending conference dinners to hand out awards to offshore gas companies and rub shoulders with lobby groups, including the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA). This year, NOPSEMA have a new CEO, Sue McCarrey, and are tasked with regulating a consortium of multinational companies, including the proud owner of the single biggest fine ever issued in US history (on which more below).

TGS energy is the outward facing arm of the project. Tomlinson Geophysical Services are a Norwegian company known for mapping undersea oil reservoirs. There’s also a local player: Beach Energy, Australia’s largest onshore oil corporation and based in Adelaide. But these are small fry compared to the big fish. The major international company to spearhead (or drill-head?) the project is ConocoPhillips, who have the world’s highest methane leakage rate per unit of oil and gas of any other fossil fuel company, and among the top twelve most greenhouse gas-intensive companies in Australia. But the real driving force behind the consortium is Schlumberger, the world’s largest offshore drilling company you’ve never heard of. With more employees than Google and a net worth more than McDonald’s, the multinational’s official base is the offshore tax haven of Curaçao in the Caribbean islands. Much like offshore drilling, the oil giant keeps itself out-of-sight, out-of-mind as much as possible—while its CEO, Paal Kibsgaard, earns $17 million dollars a year. He has also the dubious honour of being the recipient of an ‘Order of Friendship’ medal from Vladimir Putin for his company’s exploration of oil and gas resources in the Arctic Ocean. In the same year, 2015, the US government hit Schlumberger with a $232.7 million dollar fine, the biggest issued to date under the US International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The exploration of the Otway Basin and Bass Strait comes after Norwegian oil giant Equinor’s decision to follow BP and Chevron in withdrawing from offshore drilling in the Great Australian Bight, as well as the legal ruling against offshore gas company Santos in the Tiwi Islands, won by Munipi and other traditional owners in asserting their right to sea country. In the Otway Basin and Bass Strait, there is no legal requirement for community consent in order for exploration to commence. Despite significant opposition voiced by King Island residents in response to seismic blasting for oil and gas in 2022, the consultation process for vertical seismic drilling is likely to be more symbolic than anything else.

ConocoPhillips’ latest consultation webinar was attended by a mere twelve people nationally, excluding the company facilitators. There could be several reasons for this: the fact that it was available by email request through a buried link to the consultation landing page, or perhaps because the development is still only in initial stages. For the time being, the process has been extended until September 30. For the next stage of the project, ConocoPhillips will submit an environmental plan to NOPSEMA for public comment. For grassroots organising, causing delays at each stage of development is key, and public consultation is just the first (and largely cosmetic, in this case) phase of the process. The environment plan draft is currently open for public comment until the end of September.

Much like the offshore drilling itself, the community consultation process has been largely opaque. If such a vast region of the seabed is quietly given the go-ahead for drilling by ConocoPhillips, Schlumberger, TGS and Beach Energy, the implications for the climate and local marine ecosystems are serious. Offshore oil companies are expert at operating in stealth mode, but recent movements such as the Fight for the Bight campaign in regional Victoria and South Australia have shown that it is possible to bring widespread attention to offshore oil and gas extraction and win. If high investment costs and public pressure are combined, the Otway and Bass Strait may go the same way.


Image: Port of Geelong blockade against seismic testing in the Otways Basin, August 2021 (Matt Hrkac)

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a writer living in Tasmania. Her recent work has appeared in The Age, Meanjin and Island magazine. She is the previous editor of Voiceworks.

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