Widespread and significant environmental damage along Australia’s coastline is expected in the event of an uncontrolled blowout according to British oil giant BP’s own models of its deepwater drilling plans in the Great Australian Bight.
The previously confidential oil spill modelling of the company’s planned subsea operations in the pristine waters off south Australia was posted on BP’s website on 15 September after significant public pressure for its release.
According to BP’s worst-case scenario modelling, there’s a 41 percent chance the impacts of an uncontrolled oil spill could reach as far as New South Wales coast more than 1,500km away, with “moderate shoreline contact” in just 48 days during winter months.
At the same time, Adelaide would have an almost certain (97 percent) chance of being hit by the spill, in as little as 36 days.
Nearby Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln would be guaranteed to be hit should an oil spill occur between April and May, and would also very likely be impacted by a spill at any other point in the year.
Less than a day after BP’s reports were released, Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) announced it would take an additional 10 days to assess the oil giant’s drilling plans. A final decision is due at the end of September.
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The news also comes as Australian Senators have re-opened an inquiry into the environmental, social, and economic impacts of BP’s drilling plans.
The range of impact predicted by BP is also much greater than previous modelling commissioned by the Wilderness Society in 2015 expected, which suggested major impacts along most of Australia’s southern coast.
Separate research commissioned by the Wilderness Society also found that plans by BP and others to drill in the area could take up a third of the country’s entire carbon budget if successful.
In its analysis BP also admits that marine animals, such as sperm whales, pygmy blue whales, sea lions and birds, would have a high chance of coming into contact with an oil slick.
For example, if a spill occurred during the winter, BP predicts a 97 percent chance that endangered southern right whales nursing in the Great Australian Bight Marine National Park would be impacted.
“We now know why BP has been so reluctant to reveal its oil spill modelling, which we have been asking to see for years,” said Peter Owen, Wilderness Society South Australian Director.
“The impact would be truly devastating for marine life, birds, coastlines, fisheries, coastal communities and possibly anywhere along the southern Australian coast. The risks are too great.”
Owen continued: “BP’s latest spill modelling summary also finally admits to the unacceptable impact that a spill in the Bight could have on critically important ecological systems and marine species that Australia has clear international obligations to protect.”
‘Disaster in the Making’
The oil giant’s reports show it modelled a 149-day spill. This is the amount of time it would take to drill a relief well to permanently stop the blowout.
And while BP expects it could cap the well in 35 days, there would still be a high chance of the spill impacting Adelaide, Port Lincoln, and Kangaroo Island, with the oil possibly reaching shore in just 15 to 20 days.
A spokeswoman for BP told Guardian Australia: “It’s important to remember that the modelling assumes that a worst credible discharge has taken place with no measures designed to prevent this from happening being considered. It also assumes that no attempts to control, contain, disperse or recover the oil are attempted – whereas in reality all these measures would be employed.”
But Wilderness Society National Director Lyndon Schneiders argues the stakes are too high: “The risks posed by this project to the environment and to the coastal communities of southern Australia are simply too great.”
“The time has come for the regulator NOPSEMA to draw a line under this project once and for all,” Schneiders continued. “It is also time that BP recognise that this project presents many risks, including to its own company’s long-term future and walks away.
“BP cannot afford another Deepwater Horizon – yet this project has all the hallmarks of a disaster in the making.”
In July BP announced it would be paying a further $2.5 billion (£1.87bn) for its Deepwater Horizon spill, bringing its total to almost $62bn in fines for the 2010 disaster – the world’s biggest oil spill. The blowout killed 11 oil rig workers and spilled 800 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days.
But now in the Great Australian Bight, BP’s planned Stromlo-1 well is set to be 2,250 metres below water. That’s 750m deeper than the Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well.
And last week the Guardian revealed that the rigs set to be used by BP for drilling in the Great Australian Bight could be using faulty equipment.
Since 2003, around the world huge bolts used to secure offshore oil equipment to the seafloor have been snapping off or coming loose. For example, bolt failure led to a spill of more than 400 barrels of drilling fluid in the Gulf of Mexico in 2013.
According to the US offshore oil and gas regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (set up specifically to try and prevent another Gulf of Mexico disaster), subsea bolt failures could cause a repeat Deepwater Horizon-style blowout.
Photo: Matt Turner