Is the eNGO campaign against BP’s Bight drilling program deceptive?

Whenever there’s a good news story for South Australia, like BP establishing an exploration drilling supply base in Port Adelaide and formally opening it on Friday 4 March 2016, there follows a flurry of mostly negative comments by the media and eNGOs.  Examples include the ABC’s, “BP supply base launched while exploration approval still pending“, In Daily’s “BP opens oil rig base while it awaits green light” and even Australia Independent Media (AIM)’s “Risking it all – BP and the Great Australian Bight“, which was published before the formal opening of the supply base.

These negative comments are so extreme that most readers, who tend to have minimal access to detailed knowledge about the issues, are led to believe that the government is making a huge mistake and BP are about to adversely impact the environment and hence the quality of life for all South Australians.

However, just like Mark Twain’s >100-year quote “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed” you cannot believe everything you read/hear in the media, especially when it is so obviously exploited by the eNGOs.

Before we have a look at some of the misinformation published in these media articles, let’s see some facts about the area.  Fig 1 shows the acreage (S15-1)  that was gazetted by the Federal Government in 2015 with a closing date for applications from industry being 21 April 2016. The surrounding licences, coloured in grey, have previously been allocated and seismic surveys have already been conducted in those to the West, operated by BP, Chevron and Murphy whereas, although a seismic survey has been approved over the two to the East, operated by Bight Petroleum, it has not yet been carried out.

Fig 1. Great Australian Bight Petroleum Exploration Licences

Fig 1. Great Australian Bight Petroleum Exploration Licences

Zooming in a bit closer to this area, Fig 2 shows the previous seismic coverage (in light grey) acquired in the area before the recent round of surveys conducted by BP, Chevron (with TGS) and Murphy (with PGS).  Note there have also been  12 wells already drilled in the area.  A total of 122,000 line km of seismic coverage had been acquired in the SA sector of the Bight Basin up to 2011. The yellow polygon to the West is a 3D seismic survey conducted in Feb/March 2006 covering an area of 1562 sq km.  In comparison (but not shown on the map), since 2011, the BP (12,500 sq km), Chevron (23,500 sq km) and Murphy (8,000 sq km) 3D surveys totalling approx 44,000 sq km have been conducted over most of the area between the Western border of S15-1 and the SA/WA border.

Fig 2. Pre-2011 seismic coverage and wells drilled in the Bight Basin

Fig 2. Pre-2011 seismic coverage and wells drilled in the Bight Basin

Let’s now have a look as some of the claims made in these articles:

  1. The Wilderness Society’s Peter Owen said “BP is treating the Australian community and indeed the Australian Senate with contempt,“. Firstly, how can planning ahead be “contempt”? BP have to take the risk of installing infrastructure to support their drilling program and hence meet their licence commitments, even though they do not have their Environment Plan approved and the Senate Inquiry is to be completed. Secondly, how can they be accused of “contempt” when they have been open and transparent every step of the way, as confirmed by Brian Jeffriess, CEO of ASBTIA (Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association), the main stakeholder in the Bight, in a comment following the In Daily article: “At every stage, BP has been responsive and transparent and we are supporting the drilling operation.“? Given the misinformation often spread by The Wilderness Society perhaps it is them who should stand accused of “contempt”.
  2. Furthermore, Peter Owen claims that: “If that (an oil spill) was to happen out here in the Australian Bight, one of the most pristine environments, one of the most significant whale nurseries, in the world, would be destroyed“.  Firstly, the 122,000 line km of seismic traverse, approx 44,000 sq km 3D coverage and 12 wells that have already occurred in the Bight (see Fig 2) is surely testament to the care taken by the industry and the dubious nature of his claims. Secondly, is this area any more “pristine” than the seas near Ningaloo Reef, Ashmore-Cartier Islands and the Kimberleys (adjacent to the NW Shelf, an extremely important petroleum province for Australia), the seas near the Gippsland Lakes (adjacent to the Gippsland Basin, a basin that has been producing oil and gas for over 40 years) or the seas near King Island, Great Ocean Rd and the Warrnambool Southern Right Whale resting area, in which natural gas production, important to SW Victoria, commenced in the 2000’s?
  3. Peter Owen of Wilderness also claims that “There are serious concerns about BP drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight whale nursery“. Note Wilderness’ use of the word “in” because BP is definitely NOT proposing to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight whale nursery. Their drilling area is 260km away from the Head of Bight whale calving (nursery) area. BP may, of course, be proposing to drill in the multiple use part of the Great Australian Bight Marine Park (see Fig 3) but this type of activity is acceptable in this area. Thus, it appears to be Wilderness who is treating the reader with “contempt” by misleading them with (deliberately?) incorrect statements. BP’s 80-page summary EP for the drilling program is openly and transparently available on the site they have set up for this project.
Fig 3. Great Australian Bight Commonwealth Marine Reserve

Fig 3. Great Australian Bight Commonwealth Marine Reserve

4. Another claim from Wilderness is that “Our fishing industry would be permanently damaged, our tourism wiped out“. This claim lacks credibility given it has not happened in the Gippsland Basin, Otway Basin (offshore Warrnambool) nor the NW Shelf (even after the Montara oil spill) and the main fishing association in the region (ASBTIA) is supportive of the drilling program.

In conclusion, TNR would suggest that it is eNGOs like Wilderness who are treating the Australian people with “contempt”, by misinforming them and we look forward to the conclusion of the Senate Inquiry, which will surely have to accept factual, scientific and verifiable information regarding BP’s drilling program and reject the misinformation, myths and pseudo-science spread by the likes of The Wilderness Society.


  1. Brad Flaherty says:

    The use of a stochastic probability oil spill model has not been explained as all scenarios under all conditions. They have left it for people to believe that this is what could happen for a single hydrocarbon release.

    • johnnwdhughes says:

      Brad, thanks for your comment. I’m not familiar with stochastic modelling and I’m not too sure whether you are referring (when you say “they”) to BP or The Wilderness Society. Thus, I won’t comment on the oil-spill modelling. However, it does appear that the likes of The Wilderness Society and others of their ilk (eg OFSA) try to persuade the community that an oil spill is highly likely to occur. This is so far from the truth that it is laughable. Perhaps those people who believe a spill (of the sort of volume they are claiming) is likely as a result of BP’s drilling program should “put their money where there mouth (or pen) is” and take out a wager on the outcome!

      • Brad Flaherty says:

        Sorry for the confusion. I was referring to the spil model put forward by the Wilderness society.

  2. As Brad points out, the graphic on the Wilderness Society web page is extremely misleading. It does not show the anticipated extent of a single spill (although it is left open for their readers to make that interpretation, and is being used to show single spill extent on some activist pages) but the effect of cumulative runs of stochastic modelling.

    Stochastic means chaotic. Stochastic analyses return a broad range of results, because they incorporate one or more unpredictable variables.

    However, to be useful, they must still input data within the range of reason and experience. For example, a model to help predict the maximum range of a bullet fired from a rifle would not include possible muzzle exit speeds twenty times higher than the maximum possible.

    This kind of bounding to reality, to what is actually possible, does not seemed to have been employed in the Wilderness Society’s modelling.

    For example, Australia’s worst production spill, the Montara spill in the Timor Sea, produced a slick approximately 160 kilometres long. At its furthest extent it was only a few microns thick. There is no evidence it reached the shore at any point in Australia.

    By contrast, the Wilderness Society “modelling” shows a total possible spill extent of approximately 4,000 kilometres, twenty-five times greater.

    That is not science, it is propaganda.

    I have asked the Wilderness Society for a copy of the whole report.

    • johnnwdhughes says:

      Brad and Peter, thanks for your comments about the Wilderness Society’s “modelling”. I agree that most of the Wilderness Society’s claims are propaganda and not science.


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