Sean Doherty: The Offshore Gas Field Hiding in Plain Sight of Newcastle, Sydney and the Central Coast

30 Jul 2020 10 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Newcastle-born Belinda Baggs has led the surf community fight against the PEP 11 offshore development.Photo: Jarrah Lynch

Newcastle-born Belinda Baggs has led the surf community fight against the PEP 11 offshore development.Photo: Jarrah Lynch

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

“Is that the airport? There?”

My favourite line from The Castle is when the property valuer walks into the Kerrigan’s backyard just as a 747 takes off over the back fence and realises the house backs onto the airport runway.

Likewise, when you mention to pretty much anyone living on the coast between Sydney and Newcastle that there’s plans to turn the horizon off their coast into an offshore gas field you get the same response. They think you’re taking the piss. They can’t believe anyone would seriously consider developing an offshore gas field off Sydney. But I suppose a country that can blow up a 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site for an iron ore mine is capable of pretty much anything.

Petroleum Exploration Permit 11 – PEP11 – has been hiding in plain sight off the most populated coastline in the country for well over a decade. Australians are accustomed to the offshore oil and gas industry operating as remotely as possible – northwest WA, the Timor Sea, Bass Strait and most recently out in the Great Australian Bight. There’s currently no offshore gas in development off Australia’s east coast.

But PEP 11 is not exactly remote. It’s a 4500 square kilometre area smack bang off Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle. If it’s developed, there’s a distinct possibility that the gas rigs would be visible on the horizon. The idea seems wildly incredulous, and yet this is Australia where the fossil fuel lobby has dictated their own terms for decades now. PEP 11 is not only real, it’s just two green lights from the drills being primed. The drilling could begin as early as next year.

It was first surveyed in 1981, although it was first seriously developed in December 2010 when a test well was drilled 61km off Newcastle by Australian company Advent Energy, who concluded the area was “a potential Giant Gas province.” In the years following, Advent also conducted a series of seismic testing in the basin, mapping several prospect areas that someone with a twisted sense of humour named after whale species, the animals most effected by the seismic blasts. Last year, Advent – who owns an 85% share of the PEP 11 exploration permit, with Bounty Oil and Gas owning the other 15 – facing growing community opposition announced they were ditching plans to conduct another series of 3D seismic testing, and instead were jumping straight ahead to begin drilling.

This is where we find ourselves today.

To begin drilling Advent need approvals. They first need the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administration to allow them to switch from seismic testing to drilling. They also need to have the PEP 11 permit extended, as it’s due to expire next year. Both these approvals, according to their own press, are “imminent”. If approved, they’d still have to have any drilling approved by NOPSEMA, the offshore drilling regulator who’ll deem whether it’s environmentally safe or not.

And yet Advent remain bullish, and why wouldn’t they? Just today, a leaked final report from the Federal Government’s own COVID Commission recommended huge public investment in gas infrastructure. As The Age reports, “A hand-picked coronavirus manufacturing taskforce is urging the Federal government to underwrite a dramatic expansion of gas supply through tax incentives and financial support for new projects,” and “cutting red and green tape”. The hand-picked panel of course, is stacked with people not only aligned with the gas industry, but actively working for gas companies. The head of the COVID Commission, Nev Power, is a director of Strike Energy. Conflict of interest calls have been summarily dismissed. This is of course modern Australia, where fossil fuel interests call the shots.

Advent – along with the entire gas industry in Australia – is crying about a gas shortage and the need for projects like PEP 11 to be developed. This gas shortage is a smoky. Australia is awash with gas. Australia is currently the largest exporter of liquid natural gas in the world, and therein lies the problem. Exports have tripled in the past five years, resulting in a tripling of domestic gas prices. What happens, broadly, is that the cheap gas is shipped off to Asia while Australian consumers are stuck with the expensive gas. It’s led to the farcical situation where we are building import terminals in Port Kembla and Newcastle to import back the same gas we exported, just at a higher price. There is no gas reserve policy on the Australian east coast, the Federal Government has done nothing to intervene, and so the market is free to chase profits however it sees fit.

Hey presto, gas crisis.

The fact PEP 11 has progressed this far without huge communal uproar is also surprising, but opposition is stirring to life. Both the Surfrider Foundation and a Newcastle-based group Save Our Coast has been banging the drum to at least make people aware what’s going on just off their coast. Save Our Coast has encouraged people to write to local Federal MPs asking for the PEP 11 permit to be scrapped. At last count they have had almost 10,000 people send emails, and the issue is likely to become politically hot. There are a bunch of marginal electorates along the coast staring out at a horizon where, if left uncontested, gas rigs could soon be staring back.

It feels like the PEP 11 showdown is coming to a head, and the corona lockdown is the only thing preventing a repeat of the Great Australian Bight paddle out protests that swept around the country last year. If you can get tens of thousands of people to paddle out and save a coastline a couple of thousand kays away they’ve never been to, how many would you get when the rigs are on their doorstep?

Wamberal on the Central Coast of NSW, perfectly adjacent to the incoming offshore gas field. Photo: From the Coastalwatch User Photo Gallery by DanZahra

Wamberal on the Central Coast of NSW, perfectly adjacent to the incoming offshore gas field. Photo: From the Coastalwatch User Photo Gallery by DanZahra


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