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Is The Great Australian Bight Headed For An Oil Disaster?

The future of the Great Australian Bight is hanging in the balance -- somewhere between a potentially untapped oil reserve and environmental disaster.

Damien Cole -- the son of one of Australia's most respected surfboard designers Maurice Cole -- has been familiar with its waters all his life.

"When you go to the Bight, there's that sense of this isolated beauty and you just feel like you're on the edge of the world," Cole told 10 daily, fresh off his election bid as an independent in the Victorian seat of Corangamite.

"You feel like time doesn't matter. It's a special place -- kind of the last of the unknown. If you ever want to get away from society, as surfers, that's where we go."

It's those same surfers who have been turning up to paddle outs along the country's coastline in recent months to protest an extremely risky proposal from Norwegian company Equinor to drill for oil in the Bight.

Paddle outs are a traditional memorial service to remember those who have been lost. In many ways, these protests were a chance for Cole and his fellow surfers to paddle out in commemoration of what could be lost.

Home to more biodiversity than the Great Barrier Reef and responsible for an even larger contribution to Australia's economy-- an estimated $10 billion each year-- the Great Australian Bight is one of the most pristine marine ecosystems on the planet.

More than 85 percent of the species found along its coastline are not found anywhere else in the world.

"I was driving down there recently and just thinking, 'imagine if there was oil lapping up these cliff faces and beaches'. You can't quite fathom the possibility, but it's now a real threat," Cole said.

Equinor wants to drill a deepwater oil well 370km off the Bight at a depth of more than two kilometres, with hopes of finding one of "Australia's largest untapped oil reserves". It would be the deepest drill in the area's history.

But these waters are remote and treacherous, with strong winds and violent storms.

The plan carries extreme risk and should things go wrong, experts warn there will be a lack of infrastructure to deal with the oil spill.

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In April, Equinor submitted an Environmental Plan to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), which must approve the plan before drilling can begin in 2020.

According to the plan's modelling for the worst-case scenario, oil from a spill could reach from Albany in Western Australia all the way up to Port Macquarie in NSW.

"The risks of a blowout when you have an exploratory well is tenfold to that of regular drilling and this is exactly what happened in Deepwater Horizon," University of Sydney energy and natural resources law expert Dr Madeline Taylor told 10 daily, referring to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which is largely considered the industry's worst.

"In this instance, I would argue the Great Australian Bight is a more precarious situation than the Gulf."

Dr Taylor is among a group of experts -- including former BP Australia president Greg Bourne -- calling on NOPSEMA to hold Equinor to international best-practice standards if the drill goes ahead.

In a submission to the regulator on Wednesday, the group said the company's "overconfidence" in its ability to prevent a major spill could lead to catastrophe.

It was similar overconfidence which led to BP's disastrous Deepwater Horizon spill, the group said, in much less challenging waters than those facing Equinor in Australia.

A surf demonstration, a so-called paddle out, takes place on May 12, 2019 in the harbour pool outside the Opera House in Oslo, Norway. Image: Getty

It's a matter of risk and reward, and when it comes to the Bight, Dr Taylor believes "the stakes are too high".

"This is a special case, and this is a very special place," she said.

"It is home to so many incredibly precious species, home to many Indigenous communities on the shoreline and also a thriving aquaculture industry in South Australia. Fishermen have been there for decades and decades making a living off the sea and this will change if it becomes the sight of oil extraction."

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The situation is urgent, Dr Taylor said, with NOPSEMA due to accept or reject Equinor's environmental plan this time next month.

For Wilderness Society SA director Peter Owen, the so-called Fight For The Bight has been urgent since the drill was first proposed.

"The Bight is without a doubt probably the most ecologically intact marine ecosystem that Australia has," Owen told 10 daily.

"It is as close to pristine as marine environments get in the world now. I just feel we're sleepwalking into a disaster here. Someone needs to blow the whistle and go 'hang on, this one doesn't make sense at all'."

Rocky coast of the Great Australian Bight. Image: Getty

Prior to the election, Resources Minister Matt Canavan said the Coalition would commission an independent audit of the oil regulator's consideration of the exploration in the Bight.

Now the Liberal Party has re-formed government, Cole said he is trying to remain positive our politicians will recognise what's at stake for those living along Australia's south coast.

"You're risking everything we've ever known," Cole said.

"You're risking hundreds of coastal communities, you're risking everything of theirs -- local economies, social wellbeing, our culture as surfers, our history and obviously our environment. And once that's gone it's not coming back."

Contact the author: vquested@networkten.com.au