The world’s longest uninterrupted sea cliffs, and dozens of epic surf spots, many of which are hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town.
Cleaning up the Prestige oil spill in Galicia. Photo: Stephane M Grueso
The mighty, untouched, Great Australian Bight, South Australia. Photo: SA Rips
WA to Port Macquarie - Equinor's oil spill modelling.
15 March 19
By oceanographer Tony Butt, from Patagonia’s Roaring Journals:
Friday 6th December 2002. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I was standing with three friends at the top of a cliff near Mundaka, one of the world’s most iconic surf spots. We watched in horror as a gigantic black stain advanced its way towards the coast. Minutes later, the waves started dumping millions of blobs of crude oil onto the shoreline. In the space of a few hours, the beautiful coastline of yellow sand had turned into a stinking carpet of black, sticky tar.
There would be no surfing for the rest of the winter, and no fishing for nine months anywhere in the Bay of Biscay. Hundreds of thousands of birds and other creatures would die, and the ecosystem would be altered forever.
The oil had come from a supertanker called the Prestige, which had broken up in heavy seas off Galicia about two weeks before. The oil had spread all the way along the north coast of Spain and down into Portugal, and would soon work its way up the French Biscay coast and beyond.
The area nearest to the spill – ‘ground-zero’ – was the Costa da Morte, an extraordinary stretch of unspoilt coastline in the far northwest reaches of Galicia. The Costa da Morte is wide open to the North Atlantic and in winter receives some of the largest swells in the world. It is known as a magical place, with empty white-sand beaches, mist-shrouded cliffs and crystal-clean, cold water. But in December 2002 it looked more like a scene from a post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie.
The Prestige oil spill was Spain and Europe’s worst environmental catastrophe in living memory. After enduring the consequences of such a disaster, the people of Galicia set up a platform called Nunca Mais (never again) with a simple and clear objective: to do everything possible in the future to keep oil away from their coastline.
Over on the other side of the planet, there is a stretch of coastline similar in many ways to Galicia, although much, much bigger. The coast around the Great Australian Bight, including southern WA, South Australia and Victoria, is harsh and unspoilt. It contains the Bunda cliffs, the world’s longest uninterrupted sea cliffs, and dozens of epic surf spots, many of which are hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town.
The Bight itself is one of the world’s most unique and productive marine ecosystems, with 19 marine parks and several marine reserves. Around 85 per cent of the species found there are not found anywhere else on the planet. Year-round open-ocean wave heights in the Bight are close to the highest in the world, frequently exceeding 15 metres.
The big difference between here and Galicia is that the people living along the coast of southern Australia haven’t had direct experience of a major oil spill on the scale of the Prestige. Hopefully they never will.
You see, a Norwegian oil company called Equinor (formerly Statoil) wants to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, 370 km offshore. The oil platform would be a floating one, with stabilisers to deal with the constant massive swells and storm-force winds. The ‘drill bit’ would be five or six kilometres long, first to reach the sea bed, 2,000 metres down, and then to reach the oil, another three to four kilometres below the bed.
Equinor assures us that all this is totally safe:
“It is important to understand that the chance of a major oil spill is very low and we will not drill unless we believe we can do it safely. We have done extensive research on the geology in the area and the metocean conditions, and found these are well within the range where we’ve safely operated before.”
On the other hand, marine conservation biologist Professor Richard Steiner, who has done an independent risk assessment, points out:
“Given the extreme depths and uncertainties in oil reservoir characteristics involved, this should be considered a high-risk project. Regardless of the safeguards employed […] the risk of a blowout and large oil spill is very real.
“As someone who has studied these disasters around the world, and heard the endless misrepresentations from industry about all this, I would respectfully advise that the risks of deep-water drilling in the Bight greatly outweigh potential benefits, and a no-drilling decision would be a wise course for a sustainable future for southern Australia.”
Please help to stop this madness. Put pressure on the company by submitting your comments before 20th March