Canavan lifts se­crecy around off­shore oil and gas en­vi­ron­men­tal plans

The Guardian Australia - - News - Michael Slezak

The reg­u­la­tion of Aus­tralia’s off­shore oil and gas in­dus­try will be­come more trans­par­ent af­ter the re­sources min­is­ter, Matthew Canavan, an­nounced that en­vi­ron­men­tal plans for ex­plo­ration and ex­trac­tion would no longer be kept se­cret.

Canavan also an­nounced the fed­eral gov­ern­ment would con­sider lift­ing se­crecy sur­round­ing the way the off­shore oil and gas reg­u­la­tor con­ducts com­pli­ance and en­force­ment ac­tiv­i­ties, but did not com­mit to do­ing so.

Un­der the ex­ist­ing regime, oil and gas com­pa­nies must sub­mit de­tailed en­vi­ron­men­tal plans if they wish to ex­tract or ex­plore for oil un­der the sea.

But those plans are kept se­cret by both the pro­po­nent com­pa­nies and the Na­tional Off­shore Pe­tro­leum Safety and En­vi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment Au­thor­ity (Nopsema).

The is­sue has come to a head over the past few years as com­pa­nies in­clud­ing BP, Chevron, San­tos and Sta­toil lined up to drill for oil in the pris­tine waters of the Great Aus­tralian Bight.

BP was the first com­pany to progress its plans there but it re­fused to re­lease in­for­ma­tion on oil­spill mod­el­ling and de­tailed plans for how a spill would be dealt with.

Af­ter sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic pres­sure – and in­de­pen­dent mod­el­ling com­mis­sioned by The Wilder­ness So­ci­ety – BP even­tu­ally pub­lished a sum­mary of some of its own mod­el­ling but then with­drew its plans to drill in the Bight.

Un­der fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal law, even straight­for­ward projects on land – in­clud­ing on­shore oil and gas ex­plo­ration, as well as coalmin­ing – are re­quired to pub­lish doc­u­ments that are equiv­a­lent to an en­vi­ron­men­tal plan (en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ments and en­vi­ron­ment re­ports).

How­ever, in the name of re­duc­ing “green tape”, the Coali­tion made an ex­cep­tion for off­shore ap­provals un­der fed­eral laws, mak­ing as­sess­ment by Nopsema the only hur­dle pro­po­nents must pass. De­spite in­sis­tence that Nopsema’s process would be equiv­a­lent, Nopsema re­fused to pub­lish en­vi­ron­men­tal plans.

But now, fol­low­ing the sig­nif­i­cant scru­tiny ap­plied to plans for drilling in the Great Aus­tralian Bight, a “con­sul­ta­tion and trans­parency re­view” con­ducted by the Depart­ment of In­dus­try, In­no­va­tion and Sci­ence has rec­om­mended that en­vi­ron­men­tal plans be pub­lished for pub­lic scru­tiny. And in a state­ment re­leased on Tues­day night, Canavan an­nounced the rec­om­men­da­tions had been ap­proved.

“Aus­tralians can have con­fi­dence in the in­for­ma­tion used to de­cide where, when and how pe­tro­leum ac­tiv­i­ties take place, and are able to have their say dur­ing the process, as well as know­ing if an in­ci­dent has oc­curred and what ac­tion is taken to ad­dress it,” Canavan said.

There has also been sig­nif­i­cant con­cern around the lack of trans­parency around the com­pli­ance and en­force­ment regime con­ducted by Nopsema.

When the Guardian re­vealed an oil well had spilled as much as 10,500 litres of oil over a pe­riod of two months, the reg­u­la­tor re­fused to im­me­di­ately dis­close that Wood­side had been re­spon­si­ble for the leak, de­spite Wood­side ad­mit­ting it when asked by the Guardian.

Canavan did not com­mit to rec­om­men­da­tions about im­prov­ing that is­sue but did say he would “con­sider” mak­ing changes to the trans­parency of com­pli­ance and en­force­ment ac­tiv­i­ties car­ried out by Nopsema.

The news comes as Nopsema is mak­ing changes to the way pro­po­nents sub­mit en­vi­ron­men­tal plans. The reg­u­la­tor is build­ing a se­ries of “ref­er­ence cases” which pro­po­nents may use as part of their en­vi­ron­men­tal plans. The reg­u­la­tor says that process will re­duce red tape for pro­po­nents, as well as mak­ing the process more trans­par­ent.

Protest tar­get­ing BP’s push to drill for oil in the Great Aus­tralian Bight. Pho­to­graph: Bill Doyle/GuardianWit­ness

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