Apart from occasional links to news stories of interest, I haven’t written anything about local oil and gas development for over a year. I am often asked why I would support energy exploration in the Bight. And even more often, it is simply assumed that no one could honestly want such development, and I must therefore be in the pay of the oil companies. Alas! Not so. Though if Bight Petroleum or BP or any of those other nefarious organisations felt a desire to send me a large cheque, or even an offer for me visit to an operational rig or working survey vessel, I would gladly accept. The cheque would be best.
Australia’s economic stability depends on reliable supplies of cheap energy, mostly in the form of coal and oil. Many people would rather this were not so, and suggest renewables as a safer, cleaner option. Renewables are becoming cheaper and more efficient. But they are not yet even at the stage when they reliably produce over their lifetimes more energy than it costs to manufacture, transport, install and maintain them. The energy required for that production, maintenance, transport, etc., is entirely provided by fossil fuels. The only other possibility, energy produced by hydro and nuclear power, is not efficiently convertible for use in primary industry or transport; two key areas for remote communities like Kangaroo Island. Like it or not, our stability and economy will depend on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.
Members of remote communities would be the first to suffer if fuel became difficult to obtain, or prices surged. For example, on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the entire life of the community depends on oil. Without oil there would be no ferries or planes to the island. There would be no fishing, no farming, no way for tourists to travel to or around the island, no boat trips or safaris, no food or furniture transported to the island, no building, no roads, no maintenance of infrastructure. In other words, no way to live.
There are a number of reasons why energy production should take place locally wherever possible.
Some of the most important of these are environmental.
Firstly, as a general rule, anything that can be economically or competitively produced locally should be produced locally. This is true of clothing and food; it is certainly true of energy. It is inefficient to produce oil half- way around the world and transport it here if we can develop oil reserves within Australia at the same price. And we can. Local production means saving all of the fossil fuel used in transporting vast amounts of oil around the world, with all of its associated emissions. Just because we have to use fossil fuels for now does not mean we should do so wastefully, or without regard for any environmental impact.
Secondly, oil that is not produced locally has to be produced somewhere else; somewhere, unless it is the US or Canada, with far lower safety and environmental standards than Australia. The lower the standards, the greater the likelihood of loss of life and of lasting harm to biological systems.
Thirdly, about 25% of all oil spilled into the ocean is directly related to oil industry activity (the rest, by far the majority, is mostly natural spills and seeps, like the Coal Point seep field near Santa Barbara, or multiple seeps in the Gulf of Mexico). About 5% of the 25% attributable to the oil industry occurs during exploration and development. The other 20%, five times as much, occurs during transportation. By far the greatest risk of a major spill near Kangaroo Island is the millions of tonnes of oil unloaded at Port Adelaide, which is far closer to KI than any proposed development site. One guaranteed way to reduce ocean spills is to reduce the volume of oil transported over long distances. Of course oil would still need to be transported from local wells to a local refinery, but there is a huge difference between transport over 500 kilometres, and transport over 15,000 kilometres.
The final environmental concern that would be alleviated by responsible local energy development is that of ocean noise.
Waves slapping against the sides of an empty tanker are in the same order of magnitude as the sounds generated by acoustic imaging. Acoustic imaging allows engineers to map the ocean bed and underlying structures in great detail. This reduces the need to drill test wells, and keeps interference with the sea bed to a minimum. Acoustic imaging is carefully monitored when in operation to protect nearby marine life, especially marine mammals. It has been rigorously researched over the last thirty years to examine possible impact on marine life. No long term impacts on any marine species have ever been observed. There is, for example, no correlation between acoustic imaging and increased beaching of whales. Australian research has also shown no impact beyond a momentary startle on smaller fish, worms, corals, etc. And of course, acoustic imaging takes place in any one area for only a few days. The noise of tankers plying the oceans is constant, is not monitored for effect on wildlife, and has not been subject to the same research. Where we are unsure of effects, we ought to exercise caution, and where we can reduce human impact on the environment, we have a duty to do so. Local energy development will significantly reduce ongoing ocean noise pollution.
In addition to environmental benefits, local production of oil also provides for greater reliability of pricing and supply. The Middle-East is simply too unstable to for us to rely on for such a vital resource. In the past we had little choice, but now it is clear that Australia has oil and gas reserves which may rival those of Saudi Arabia. We do not need to obtain oil from unstable, violent or war-torn regimes. In addition, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly shown that it is willing to manipulate the price of crude oil to suit its own purposes. It has done so over the last twelve months, reducing the price dramatically, in order to make Western investment in energy development uneconomical, and to encourage continued dependence on Arab oil producers. It can just as easily increase the price when it believes itself in a position of strength, and has done so in the past.
Price and stability of supply are important factors when considering where to source oil supplies. So are human rights. Many of the Middle-East oil producing states have appalling human rights records. These are places where children are executed, where women are stoned to death for adultery, where hungry men who steal a loaf of bread for their families have their hands cut off, where gays are hanged. When we support these undemocratic regimes, which are only able to maintain their hold through massive security spending, we are extending and facilitating the suffering of millions of people who deserve better.
Local energy production reduces our dependency on dictators, and reduces their ability to keep their populations under control. It makes us more responsible members of the world community.
Finally, money that is spent on development here in Australia provides employment and investment in Australia. Instead of sending money overseas, resource development companies pay royalties which help fund schools, hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure and services in Australia.
Why do I support responsible local energy development? It’s better for the environment. It’s better for energy pricing and security of supply, which makes it better for Australian industry including manufacturing, farming and tourism. It’s better for human rights. It’s better for the Australian tax-payer, because local development helps fund local infrastructure and services.
I have constructed a short, five question survey which covers some of the points above. If you are interested, please feel free to complete it.