Oil rigs off Sydney beaches?

View north over Narrabeen on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Photo: Alec Smart.

A reform bill seeks to halt offshore gas and oil drilling between Manly and Newcastle, reports Alec Smart.

Zali Steggall, Independent Federal MP for Warringah, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, will be introducing a Bill to Parliament to cancel a controversial Petrol Exploration Permit (PEP) for offshore gas and oil drilling along the NSW coastline.

However, a mysterious online ‘community group’, called Our Future Warringah, with related Facebook and Instagram profiles supported by LNP politicians, has targeted Ms Steggall over her campaign against Petrol Exploration Permit number 11 (AKA PEP11) and singled her out for personal criticism.

The Bill

If successful, Ms Steggall’s Parliamentary Bill seeks to terminate PEP11, which covers 4,575 square kilometres of offshore coastline from Manly Beach to Newcastle, and prohibit any further exploration for fossil fuels in that area.

The Bill, full title Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Stopping PEP11) Bill 2021, and launched on 8 August 2021, proposes changes to the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2007.

“PEP11 is the Morrison Government’s ‘gas-led recovery’ in action. It opens the door to oil and gas rigs just offshore from our iconic beaches,” Ms Steggall warned.

“Offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction through PEP11 would have dire consequences for NSW’s coastal businesses, communities, ecosystems and climate. Any leak from PEP11 would devastate our local economy already on its knees from Covid-19, destroying fishing, tourism, and hospitality industries,” she said.

PEP talk

PEP11, first granted in 1999, actually expired in Feb 2021, but is still in force and overseen by the Joint Authority – the state and commonwealth ministers who preside over administration of exploration licenses.

The Joint Authority, including Federal Water and Resources Minister, Keith Pitt, is delaying their decision while they consider whether to extend the PEP11 license by two years, as requested by the permit holders.

Ms Steggall’s Bill also seeks to ensure that if the Joint Authority rejects the requested extension to the PEP11 licence, they cannot resurrect it in future. This would prevent the granting of revised PEPs, and revoke permission to install drilling rigs and infrastructure, denying other companies and their investors the opportunity to return and exploit the region’s gas and oil in the future.

PEP11 Is currently divided between Asset Energy Pty Ltd (a subsidiary of Advent Energy, an unlisted oil and gas company based in Perth, which is, in turn, owned by BPH Energy) – which holds an 85 per cent stake – and Bounty Oil & Gas NL, which holds the remaining 15 per cent.

Neither BPH Energy nor Bounty Oil & Gas NL replied to our repeat requests for comment.

But, according to Ms Steggall’s website, “In June and July 2021, BPH Energy … called for tenders for the provision of a range of drilling equipment, including subsea wellhead equipment, semi-submersible drilling rigs, and conductor and surface casing.”

A major investment

A 1 July 2020 article on the Small Caps website (which monitors small companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange with a market capitalization of $300 million to $2 billion) reveals what’s at stake for BPH Energy, and why they’re unlikely to willingly abandon their PEP11 investment project.

“BPH Energy has reviewed years of work on the potential PEP 11 gas field lying in the offshore Sydney Basin and reveals it has identified structural leads that could contain 1 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas.

“To put that in perspective, the Bass Strait fields since 1965 have produced 6 TCF, meaning the equivalent of 1 TCF of gas supply for a 10-year period.

“What is more, a 2010 report compiled by the private project generator Pangean Resources concluded that undiscovered gross prospective recoverable gas resources within PEP 11 have been estimated at 5.7 TCF (at the “best estimate” level).”

According to BPH Energy’s website, “The NSW onshore gas industry is in turmoil and gas reserves are declining in the Bass Strait and Cooper Basin. The east coast gas prices have recently hit staggering prices …  Advent is pushing ahead with a focussed seismic campaign around a key potential drilling prospect in PEP11, in the offshore Sydney Basin.”

Collaroy Beach, Sydney, Australia. Photo: Alec Smart.

Proximity

Since its inception in February 2002, Bounty Oil and Gas NL claims it has “pursued an active programme of land acquisition, exploration and oil development … Bounty prepares for high impact gas exploration drilling in PEP 11 Sydney Basin.”

Significantly, “The petroleum permit area is mostly shallow with an average depth of 200m” – which explains why the proposed drilling sites are so close to shore.

BPH Energy admit that the PEP11 target area is close to residential centres. “Mapped prospects and leads within the Offshore Sydney Basin are generally located less than 50km from the Sydney-Wollongong-Newcastle greater metropolitan area. This area has a population of approximately 5,000,000 people.”

The Stopping PEP11 Bill has the support of surfing organisations and high-profile, award-winning Australian surfers, concerned about the drilling operation’s proximity to shore and marine life.

These include: Layne Beachley (seven-time world champion surfer), Tom Carroll (two-time world champion), Belinda Baggs and Ace Buchan – all of whom surf and live along the targeted stretch of coastline – plus the environmental group Save Our Coast and the influential Surfrider Foundation Australia.

The latter have hosted public demonstrations, most memorably a publicity stunt near Parliament House in Canberra on 7 December, 2020, where they “paddled out in the (rather putrid) waters of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin with symbolic gas rig”.

Whale migration corridor

Ms Beachley, an Order of Australia recipient, warned that BPH Energy and Bounty Oil & Gas’ drilling plans would be disastrous for both the local economy and the ecology. 

“I would hate to see oil or gas rigs on the most beautiful horizon on the Earth,” Ms Beachley said. 

“It would destroy tourism, it would destroy the marine ecosystems, it’s a whale migration pathway. It doesn’t belong here and I would hate to see it on my watch.” 

The 100km stretch of NSW coastline between Manly and Newcastle is part of a major cetacean migration route between Antarctic waters and warmer whale breeding grounds in the mid-Pacific Ocean.

Between May to November every year, huge numbers of whales pass Sydney during their northward and southbound return migrations along the east coast.

The baleen (strainer-mouthed) species include Bryde’s, fin, humpback, minke, right and sei whales. Recently, blue whales have been spotted from the Sydney shoreline for the first time in decades. Toothed whales include southern bottlenose, pilot, melon-headed, sperm and seven ‘beaked’ species.

Around 10 species of non-migratory dolphins and their larger cousins, the orcas (including pygmy and false killer whales), are also seen in the marine environs along Sydney’s coast.

Humpback whales ‘bubble-herding’ a shoal of plankton. Photo: Vivek Kumar/Unsplash.

‘Our Future Warringah’ – who are they?

An apparently anonymous ‘community group’, consisting of a website, Instagram and Facebook profiles, has targeted incumbent MP Zali Steggall, criticising her management of Warringah electorate and attempting to discredit her campaign to halt PEP11.

For example, in a Facebook post dated 11 August 2021, Our Future Warringah declared: “Zali Steggall’s PEP11 bill is a fake news story cooked up to tell lies to the public about her ability to effect change. Why is Zali wasting our time with this nonsense when the real leadership had already delivered..”

In a 15 August, 2021 article in the The Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Michael Koziol speculated about the origins of the self-proclaimed ‘community group’ and their motives.

Asking “who’s behind anonymous campaign targeting Zali Steggall?” Koziol revealed, “the group’s website, Facebook page and Instagram account do not carry any name, contact number or authorisation, which has already led Facebook to disable one of its advertisements for breaching the company’s political advertising policy.

“Almost all of Our Future Warringah’s Facebook and Instagram posts attack independent incumbent MP Zali Steggall, accusing her of insulting Australia’s allies, betraying the electorate’s interests and ‘jabbering on television’ about vaccinating children.”

Several Liberal MPs are following Our Future Warringah’s Instagram page, yet Liberal contenders for Zali Steggall’s Warringah seat in the forthcoming NSW elections deny any involvement in the hostile organisation.

Koziol discovered that Our Future Warringah’s website is registered to Queensland digital design studio Thirteen Digital, although company director Chris Clark said he could not divulge any information about his clients.

The Sydney Sentinel asked Ms Steggall whether she suspected the webpage and accompanying social media profiles were funded by oil industry types, keen to discourage her from introducing the Parliamentary Bill to ban the PEP11.

“This is a form of digital astro-turfing that is now the platform for disinformation and manipulation,” she replied.

“The group does not appear to have any purpose other than political attacks on me and doesn’t identify any other community issues or who its ‘local concerned members’ are. Its website and social media platforms have been professionally designed and set up.

“They are trying to get around the rules that apply to groups registered as a political party or third party campaigner, such as needing to include ‘authorised by’ on any advertising. As a result, some of their paid advertising on Facebook has already been taken down.”

Meanwhile, over 70,000 people have signed an online petition at Change.org expressing opposition to any extension of PEP11.

The campaign continues.

Surf Life Savers training at Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia. Photo: Alec Smart.

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