Sean Doherty: The Bight Bites Back

26 Feb 2020 7 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

The Torquay paddle out on November 23. Photo: Guillermo Sundheim via Patagonia

The Torquay paddle out on November 23. Photo: Guillermo Sundheim via Patagonia

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

It certainly wasn’t the phone call I was expecting on a lazy Tuesday morning.

Equinor were out of the Great Australian Bight, and were presently kicking a can back to Norway. There’d be no oil rigs. The Bight and everything that swims around in it would live to fight another day. The news came like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. It was completely unexpected. I got the news at 10.30 yesterday morning. I looked at the fridge. I looked away. I looked at the fridge again. It was 10.31… and maybe just half an hour too early for a beer to celebrate.

I’ll be honest. Even at the very start of the Fight for the Bight campaign a couple of years back I was working on the assumption that someday they’d eventually just drill the well. Given Australia’s current love for digging and drilling holes in the countryside and in the ocean floor, I presumed it wouldn’t matter how many people paddled out or wrote submissions or politely told Equinor to fuck off on Instagram, they’d eventually drill the well anyway. That’s just modern, Stone Age Australia.

But I’d also reasoned to myself that I wouldn’t consider this a total loss. A shitty outcome? Sure, but the fact that tens of thousands of people paddled out in protest right around the country was a win in itself. There was clearly a huge slice of the Australian coastal population who gave a shit, and getting them down the beach and screaming at a Norwegian oil company was a huge win. Equinor might drill the well and we lose the short game, but the long game was a big, engaged and mobilised group of surfers and coast lovers who were ready to make some noise. The next Equinor would get both barrels.

THE LAST THING EQUINOR EXPECTED WITH THE BIGHT WAS A HUGE NATIONAL MOVEMENT PUSHING BACK AGAINST THEM.

But I didn’t expect to get the news this morning that Equinor had walked away altogether. They’d already spent millions and they had their formal approvals. It was done. So the big question was, why? 

The official line went something like this: “Following a holistic review of its exploration portfolio, Equinor has concluded that the project’s potential is not commercially competitive compared with other exploration opportunities in the company.” You could translate this a number of ways. Equinor has dozens of oil and gas prospects all over the world, so it could mean, “We’ll just head to some poor developing country where nobody gives a shit and drill there instead.” Energy giants burn millions exploring dark corners of the planet for oil and gas deposits, with governments willing to sell them out for five magic beans. Hello: Australia.

Straight talking however is not the strong suit of multinational energy companies. There’d be no post-game, “Well played you mob down there, too good for us this time.” No, as to why they were pulling out, you need to read between the lines. Undoubtedly there are commercial forces at work, namely the oil price. But projects like the Bight are 50-year operations and companies like Equinor forecast their viability decades ahead, so a short term fluctuation in the oil market wouldn’t influence that.

That leaves the protests.

Equinor picked the Bight for good reason. Sure, they believed it had oil, but they also knew it was well away from large towns and cities. All oil and gas development in Australia is remote. It’s kept out of sight of the general populace like coal mines and abattoirs. They are ugly realities of modern life. They are kept out of sight, out of mind. The last thing Equinor expected with the Bight was a huge national movement pushing back against them. Their own oil spill modelling did the job of taking it national, but it wasn’t finished yet.

The worst case scenario for Equinor would have been this Bight issue landing back on their doorstep in Norway. Two-thirds owned by the Norwegian people, Equinor have to answer to them and Equinor’s dirty business on the other side of the world was soon all through the Norwegian press. Heath Joske followed, leading paddle outs in Oslo Harbour. Norwegians were waking up to what their beloved state oil company was up to.

But it seemed Equinor had ridden out the worst of it. They’d ridden out years of protests and brand damage and angry Aussies lighting up their social media accounts. So why did they pull out? What changed?

The world changed.

I keep a fairly close eye on the Norwegian press to get a feel for what’s being said on the home front. Well, last month the Norwegian press – along with the European press, the American press… hell, everywhere – led with the news about the unprecedented bushfires in Australia. The scale of the bushfires was newsworthy on its own, but the angle was that Australia – the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas, with some of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, and a country that has actively sabotaged global cooperation on climate change – was now burning, coast-to-coast. Australia was now the poster child for climate change, and here was Equinor about to start drilling for oil down there at the same time they were greenwashing Norwegians with bullshit renewable energy targets and pictures of windfarms. It was a bad look. Norwegians were seeing through it.

From the start I always believed that if the Fight for the Bight was going to be won, it would be won in Norway, and to me that’s what happened. But the fight would never have gone to Norway if it wasn’t for the people of the Australian coast paddling out in their thousands to protest.

ONE MATE CALLED, REALLY EMOTIONAL, AND SAID HE COULDN’T WAIT FOR HIS DAUGHTERS TO GET HOME FROM SCHOOL SO HE COULD TELL THEM THEY’D PADDLED OUT TO STOP AN OIL RIG BEING BUILT.

The phone rang pretty hot yesterday. Heath Joske was the first call. Living down in the Bight, he’s become the spirit animal of the campaign and he let out a werewolf howl down the line. “Fuck yeah, cob!” Like all of us, he couldn’t believe it. He’d just spoken to his crew down there, and most of them were in tears and planning not to work for the rest of the week. They’d fought a conga line of oil giants on their own for almost a decade, but they’d never dared to dream that one day they’d actually win. Heath and his beard were on the national news an hour later, being interviewed down home at Streaky Bay, flies crawling up his nose as he paid tribute to the people right around the country who’d paddled out to make this happen.

Calls to my phone during the day slowly added perspective to what had just happened. A bunch of scumbag surfers had just taken down a multinational oil giant. One mate called, really emotional, and said he couldn’t wait for his daughters to get home from school so he could tell them they’d paddled out to stop an oil rig being built. Calls from a couple of surfing elders, who back in the late 60s had protested everything from sand mining to Vietnam, spoke of how this Bight campaign reminded them of those days. It was the same feeling in the air. Talking to one of them, a guy who’d spent a lot of time down on that Bight coast and was particularly moved by yesterday’s win, paused for a minute before throwing it out there. 

“So, what are you going to do next?” It was a good question.

Sean Doherty at the Gold Coast paddle out. Photo: Trent Mitchell

Sean Doherty at the Gold Coast paddle out. Photo: Trent Mitchell


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