Australia has reached its 27th consecutive year without a recession by supplying energy and raw materials like iron ore to the manufacturing economies of Asia, and particularly China. Opening the Bight to drilling would help Australia stay on track to eclipse Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of natural gas by 2020.
But opposition to the drilling plan highlights the limitations of relying so heavily on the exploitation of natural resources and their export. The plan has met surprisingly strong resistance, despite the need for jobs in a region where manufacturing used to employ one in five workers. Six town councils have raised objections to the drilling.
Communities on Australia’s southern coast are questioning whether the government can justify putting at risk a unique marine wilderness area that supports the country’s most valuable fisheries and a tourism industry worth more than $1 billion.
The Bight gets its name from its appearance: From space, it looks as if a giant bit into the southern coast of Australia. The crescent-shaped bay runs for more than 700 miles, lined by the longest stretch of sea cliffs in the world.
Port Lincoln, a small seaside town of around 16,000 people where sealing and whaling reaches back to the 1820s, is the main jumping-off point for access to the Bight. Today, the enormous wealth that it continues to bring is evident in the mansions that dot its coast — homes of the tuna barons who have made millions from selling to Japan, where sushi chefs pay top dollar for Australian tuna.
“There’s potential for an oil spill that would be catastrophic for the industry and other industries along the coast,” said Robbie Staunton, marine operations manager at Stehr Group, one of Australia’s leading seafood companies.
Computer modeling by the British oil company BP, which withdrew in 2016 from its plan to drill in the Bight, projected that an accident similar to the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 could cause environmental damage along a wide stretch of the southern Australian coastline. This raised local concerns, particularly because the Bight’s waters are deeper, rougher and more remote than those of the Gulf of Mexico.
The projection also raised another problem: whether Australia was even equipped to deal with an accident at an offshore drilling platform. The equipment needed to contain a blowout by capping the flow of oil is thousands of miles away in Singapore, and would take up to 35 days to put in place.