Minister Tony Burke needs to answer some key questions on oil and gas exploration

Minister Tony Burke needs to answer some key questions on oil and gas explorationBack in October last year, we highlighted the controversial application by Bight Petroleum to explore for oil and gas in the waters off the west coast of Kangaroo Island. These waters are one of only three feeding areas in all of Australia for the endangered blue whale and home to a host of other whale and dolphin species as well as Australian sea lions, sharks and tuna.

After months of deliberation and requests for more information from the company, it seems Environment Minister,

Tony Burke, is poised to make a decision on the application.

He will determine whether or not these special waters are bombarded, every few seconds for up to 24 hours a day over a period of months, with high intensity noise from air gun arrays used for seismic exploration.

As the decision day looms, we’ve outlined below three key questions Minister Burke needs to ask before he decides to let exploration begin.

1. Does he have adequate information on which species are in the waters of the proposed seismic survey area and how they use this habitat?

There has barely been any research about blue whales in the area other than in a couple of months of the year, let alone all the other species for whom the area is important.

This information is key to determining what the risks will be to marine life, and without this baseline data it’s impossible to assess the adequacy or not of any mitigation methods the company proposes to try and reduce its impact on marine life.

2. Do the mitigation methods proposed by Bight Petroleum address the risks of displacing animals from their critical habitats or causing stress and behavioural change?

From what we’ve seen to date, mitigation methods proposed by the company are based on suggestions in the government’s seismic guidelines. Yet these guidelines acknowledge that their scope is limited only to reducing the risk of physical harm to whales.

They do nothing to address the risks of behavioural change, such as reduced feeding or communication, or the risk of stress caused by repeated exposure to loud man-made noise, which can have long-term implications for health of populations.

These are critical issues when seismic activity is planned in critical whale habitat. Even increasing visual observations for whales (whether on boats or planes) will do little to help, as it doesn’t detect animals at night-time or in poor visibility, nor does it help detect species like sperm and beaked whales, that can spend up to an hour underwater on a single dive.

And there’s simply no way to avoid times of year when whales are in the area – different species are present all year round.

3. Has anything Bight Petroleum proposed addressed the concerns for species other than whales, or the concerns of the local community that rely on marine life for ecotourism and fishing?

While there is some research on the impacts of seismic surveys on whales, there is very little information for species such as sea lions and tuna, for which the area is also important. And let’s not forget the species Homo sapiens.

Does Minister Burke honestly feel that the paltry 10-day public comment period back in October has given an adequate opportunity for community concerns to be heard, especially as the company has submitted further information since then, none of which has been available for public scrutiny?

Kangaroo Island’s Mayor has characterised this development as “all risk and no gain” for Kangaroo Island, one of Australia’s iconic tourist destinations, a haven for wildlife and vital to the ecotourism and local fishing communities that rely on the sea and its marine life for their livelihoods.

To be honest, these are the kind of questions that need to be asked about any development in Australia’s waters, but especially so when they relate to whale hotspots like the waters off Kangaroo Island and the second whale hotspot now under threat in the waters off Warrnambool and Port Campbell, which my colleague Sharon blogged about recently.

If these questions can’t be answered then Tony Burke should use his powers to reject the application or at the very least demand a full environmental impact assessment.

- MC

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