Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Kangaroo Island: Oil Exploration
This evening I rise to draw attention to a place which needs no introduction, and that is partly because it is so well known to Australians but also partly because I have spoken about it in the Senate on more than one occasion. That place is Kangaroo Island in South Australia. It is a place where my family and I have spent memorable holidays, traversing the island in search of adventure, admiring the natural wonders of a place that is beautiful and in parts wild and, of course, eating delicious local food to keep our strength up so that we could do even more adventuring the next day.
Thousands of tourists, both domestic and international, take the short ferry ride from the mainland of South Australia over to Kangaroo Island each year or take an even shorter flight. KI is one of the most recognised international tourist destinations in Australia. Scores of South Australians have spent their summer holidays on Kangaroo Island, have been married or honeymooned there. If South Australians can agree on one thing—it may not be which football team to barrack for—it would certainly be just how special Kangaroo Island is.
But now the waters of Kangaroo Island are being eyed off by a Canadian oil company, Bight Petroleum. Bight Petroleum has two permits in Commonwealth waters off the coast of KI, and has proposed to undertake seismic testing for oil and gas in these zones. The decision about whether or not to approve Bight Petroleum's proposal is now in the hands of the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.
There has been a strong and concerted community campaign to have the proposal rejected on the basis that it poses all risk and no gain to Kangaroo Island. Most people would agree that there are some places which are simply too precious to lose, and Kangaroo Island is one of those places. In fact, a Lonergan poll conducted last year revealed that 82 per cent of South Australians—across political parties—who registered an opinion on this issue believed that Kangaroo Island should be protected from oil and gas drilling.
In the week before Christmas last year, I made another trip to the island to stand with the community as they rallied against oil and gas exploration off the coast of Kangaroo Island. Despite the timing—just a few days before Christmas—about 200 passionate people showed up. They showed up in the hope that someone would hear their voices, really listen to them, hear their concerns and stop this proposal from going ahead. They want to protect their community, their economy and their environment. And so I stood on the wharf side by side with community members—mums and dads, young and old people. These are not people who are in the habit of protesting, but I could see that they felt that this was what they had to do because they want to protect their homes, their future and the future of their children and their community.
The people in this community have been fighting a long battle, and they have not been afforded the respect they deserve throughout this process. When we talk about consultation, we think about two parties engaging in respectful, two-way dialogue of listening and having their concerns recognised. Unfortunately, the concerns about this proposal, voiced by those in the Kangaroo Island community over a fair period of time, have largely fallen on deaf ears. That is why the Kangaroo Island community rallied in a strong but peaceful protest.
The Kangaroo Island Council and Mayor Jayne Bates have been tireless advocates for their community, demanding that any bar for oil and gas exploration be set so high that there is no risk for Kangaroo Island. Indeed, because of the risks inherent in the proposal, that has to be extraordinarily high. Bight Petroleum have met with the council only once, very early in a process that has dragged out over two years. Despite the council's clear concerns, there has been no further face-to-face engagement. In the most recent public comment period provided for under the Environment Protection (Biodiversity Conservation) Act, Bight Petroleum has shown disdain for the concerns of the Kangaroo Island community. In a phase of the process designed to facilitate consultation with those affected by and concerned about a particular process, we have seen a surprising lack of respect for the public comments.
With over 150 submissions, and most of them against the proposal, Bight Petroleum's responses were often dismissive or downright offensive. They have used phrases like 'while not all of the comments from the public are informed or constructive', and a sarcastic, patronising tone is pervasive. Frequently Bight Petroleum has written 'and that is why this survey is acceptable'—a phrase filled with much certainty but very little rigour to substantiate it in their response. Bight Petroleum has sought to characterise those who have disagreed with them or asked too many questions about the proposal as troublemakers. They have accused activists of running a scare campaign, suggesting they need to apologise to the community for their actions—activists like the Kangaroo Island Council and the mayor, who are fighting for their community. The community's submissions and the Bight response are publicly available. Have a look at them.
On reading them it becomes very clear that people are deeply concerned about the economic, social and environmental threats associated with oil and gas exploration in this unique marine environment. Ninety-six of the more than 150 submissions made to Bight Petroleum mentioned the potential impacts the survey would have on eco-tourism, which is an integral part of the Kangaroo Island economy. Indeed, KI's image as clean and green is central to its attraction to many tourists from Australia and overseas. Many locals rely on the tourism and fishing industries for their livelihood and have the right to ask questions about how this proposal will impact on them.
In response to such concerns, Bight Petroleum simply wrote, 'The location of the survey is too far from land to have an impact on eco-tourism, et cetera.' Bight Petroleum makes no acknowledgement that the proposed location for the survey overlaps a critical biodiversity hotspot or that seismic testing poses a threat to marine life, including endangered and threatened whale species, in the area. Instead they blithely—and offensively—assert:
… the company and most reasonable persons, know that no harm will be caused by the Survey.
On the contrary: the threat posed by seismic testing—huge air guns shooting extremely loud blasts of compressed air through the ocean and four miles under the seafloor—is recognised by almost every single major international conservation body. Various organisations—the UN General Assembly; the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; the IMO, the International Maritime Organisation; and the IWC, the International Whaling Commission—have expressed concern about the impact of noise pollution on marine life, particularly dolphins and whales, who rely on sound as their primary sense. Now the Australian Commonwealth Fisheries Association has also called for tougher controls on seismic testing.
Bight's suggestion that anyone opposed to the proposed survey is not a reasonable person is just plain offensive and laughable. This is the impoverished standard of consultation and communication we have seen from the proponent of this misconceived venture all the way along. The question being asked by the community on the subject of their island—their home—is: what is the point of this public-comment period if well-founded social, economic and environmental concerns are simply going to be brushed aside as irrelevant? When does the community really get the chance to have their voices heard if not during the public comment period?
The Kangaroo Island community has written submissions, requested meetings, signed petitions and invited their elected members to attend the recent rally. A social media campaign was developed to show the minister just how many people support Kangaroo Island, with people from all over the world taking photos of themselves standing at Kangaroo Island. I have some photos here, which I will seek to table, of people at Stonehenge, people in Tonga and 90-year-old Merle, who was born and bred on Kangaroo Island and is absolutely sure that she wants to protect her island community from being despoiled.
Now this decision on Kangaroo Island is with the environment minister, Greg Hunt. I am here simply to amplify the voices of all those people from South Australia, from across Australia and internationally who have spoken out about their concerns with this proposal. I am here to alert the environment minister to the lack of consultation which has resulted in a flawed process without genuine community consultation. I can only hope that the environment minister will heed the message. I seek leave to table these photographs.