Australian management authority finishes release of key oil exploration documents

A Shepherd's beaked whale surfacing in the Great Australian Bight, where Bight Petroleum had submitted plans to the Australian government to explore for oil.After 18 months of campaigning through the courts, IFAW has finally been granted full access to essential documents about Bight Petroleum’s plans to explore for oil in the Great Australian Bight in important whale habitat off Kangaroo Island, South Australia. In a guest blog below, Sue Higginson, CEO/Principal Solicitor of EDO NSW, who represented IFAW in the case, explains why this is such an important win for transparency and accountability in the regulation of projects that will significantly impact the environment. --MC

Finally some scrutiny on petroleum exploration in the Great Australian Bight.

The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), the Federal agency now wholly responsible for the regulation of offshore gas and oil projects, was ordered to release key documents about seismic exploration activities in whale feeding grounds near Kangaroo Island off South Australia.

This win was a stark reminder for all agencies and regulators making decisions about public interest environmental issues that transparency and accountability in decision-making is vital to the proper administration of environmental laws.

This week, NOPSEMA has released the last of the documents under that order of the Federal Administrative Appeals Tribunal after it finally consented that the documents should be released.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), represented by EDO NSW, requested access to the documents under Freedom of Information laws so that the public could ensure that offshore oil and gas exploration company, Bight Petroleum, is meeting its obligations under Australia’s environmental laws and that NOPSEMA is fulfilling its functions as a public agency. This outcome reinforces the community’s right to be properly informed about important decisions that affect our environment.

Offshore seismic exploration involves using sound signals to survey the sea floor. Scientific research has found that the technique can have negative impacts on marine life including displacing species from their habitat, disturbing their behaviour and affecting their ability to feed, avoid predators and communicate. The combination of these impacts can significantly affect the health of populations of these marine species.

The exploration area off Kangaroo Island is habitat for a number of threatened whale species. It’s also home to the Great White Shark, the Australian Sea Lion, and migratory seabird species. The area is near the Western Kangaroo Island Marine Park, which contains colonies of New Zealand Fur Seals, whales, and dolphins.

Bight Petroleum had objected to IFAW’s request to release the documents on the grounds that the release would adversely affect its business affairs. NOPSEMA also initially refused to release its own assessments, arguing that that the documents would reveal its deliberative process.

It was only after IFAW appealed this decision to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and had presented its case to the Tribunal and NOPSEMA that NOPSEMA agreed to release the documents. Following this agreement, the Tribunal ordered NOPSEMA to provide IFAW full access to its assessment documents and Bight Petroleum’s full Environmental Plan for its exploration activities.

NOPSEMA and oil and gas companies need to realise that their activities are matters of public interest and the public expects them to be forthcoming with information if there is to be any confidence in the environmental approvals and regulatory process. It should not have taken 18 months of legal maneuvering for this information to be released.   

NOPSEMA was given its approval powers in February 2014 under the Federal Government’s ongoing devolution of environmental powers to States and industry bodies. The Bight Petroleum exploration licence was the first to be assessed and approved by NOPSEMA. 

--SH

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