Blighted hopes as BP retreats from the Bight

Blighted hopes as BP retreats from the Bight

The recent news that BP has withdrawn from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight has been greeted with disappointment by many who care about Australia’s economic and resources future, and with delight by Greens such as Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.For governments, drilling in the Bight is a classic case of balancing a very good chance of finding large oilfields against a very small risk of an oil blowout with serious environmental implications. The federal safety regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, was about to bring down a final decision on BP’s safety plans, but BP has walked away from its Bight leases on the grounds that the economics do not add up with oil prices as low as they are. Oil spills are horrendous, but the environment recovers over time. Photo: Warren Hackshall They now hope to develop alternative ways of honouring their commitments to government and the local communities. Whether the other explorers will pull out remains to be seen, and that may well depend on what the oil price does. As a geologist with some knowledge of the area, I know that this is one of the last great frontiers for oil exploration in the world.A huge delta, as big as the hugely productive Niger Delta, was laid down in the Cretaceous about 90 million years ago when the Eastern Highlands were first uplifted and eroded, and huge amounts of sediment were carried by rivers south-westward into the Bight. Present geological knowledge suggests that oil has been generated in the delta and the hope is that it has been trapped in large deep reservoirs. Only drilling can prove whether or not that is the case. BP has walked away from its Bight leases on the grounds that the economics do not add up with oil prices as low as they are. Photo: Damian White The main argument against drilling in the Bight is that a blowout like the 2010 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico would be environmentally devastating, and indeed it would. The damage was extreme and the compensation nearly bankrupted BP.However, about 20,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf with nothing like it before or since, and the series of technical errors made in that case was really amazing. Australia now has much tighter environmental rules than prevailed when there was the small but serious Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea in 2009, but there is always some risk.
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A further point is that oil spills are horrendous, but the environment recovers over time. For example, more than a million tonnes of oil from tankers was spilled in the shallow and almost landlocked Persian Gulf in the first Gulf War in 1990-91.A…

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