Coalition Senators recognise that committee members have differing views on how to respond to issues raised during this inquiry. This reflects the long‑standing community debate over balancing the need for protection of marine environments against the national and community benefits derived from the offshore oil and gas industry.
The majority report has fallen on one side of this debate, a position not supported by available evidence in the balance of submissions which a range of stakeholders took time to present to the committee. The 2017 report by this committee into Oil or Gas production in the Great Australian Bight had a similar result. We commend the Additional Comments in the 2017 report co‑signed by Senators Reynolds and Back (Liberal) and Gallacher (Labor) which go to many of the concerns raised about regulation and environmental standards re-litigated in this majority report.
In dissenting from this majority report, Coalition Senators note that evidence‑based policy has been a founding principle underpinning the success of the Commonwealth of Australia over many decades. Throughout this inquiry a range of witnesses indicated that the scientific evidence associated with potential harms arising from seismic testing was incomplete and, in the words of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), characterised by 'high levels of scientific uncertainty'. Uncertainty has quite reasonably led to concerns being held by many in the community and other industries. Uncertainty and concern, however, are not a valid basis for policy measures that are to the detriment of particular stakeholders. Uncertainty has led, appropriately, to a precautionary approach by the regulator, but Coalition Senators cannot support recommendations that amount to punitive measures against a specific industry sector when they are not based on established scientific evidence.
Coalition Senators support measures to reduce the uncertainty by encouraging increased collaboration and proportionate contributions from relevant stakeholders to enable longer term funding for research, but not in the manner recommended in the majority report.
Evidence from the CSIRO on continuing plankton abundance, and from NOPSEMA regarding the north-west shelf where—despite concerns—data shows a healthy fishing industry has been maintained and multiple whale species are increasing in number, points to the continuing health of the marine ecosystem over time. Coalition Senators believe the available evidence demonstrates that economic, security and employment benefits of sustainable and safe management of our ocean resources, including seismic testing, have been—and can continue to be—appropriately balanced with the protection of our oceans and the environment.
We offer the following comments on some of the key issues raised throughout the inquiry.
Seismic Testing in Australia
Coalition Senators note that Australia's resources sector underpins our prosperity as a nation and the subsequent ability to fund essential services, such as health and education, which are among the best in the world. Australia's offshore oil and gas industry remains crucial for our energy security and the energy security of many of our trading partners. It is important that Australia continues to identify areas that are geologically prospective for new oil and gas projects. This industry sector provides jobs in rural and regional Australia and the industry has largely demonstrated an ability to co-exist with fishing, tourism and other industries.
Seismic surveying remains an important part of the offshore petroleum industry. A key step in the petroleum exploration cycle to help identify locations of high prospectivity, it allows proponents to understand the sub‑surface structure and identify the potential for petroleum hydrocarbons.
Since the early 1960s, around 1500 seismic surveys have been conducted in Commonwealth waters, including over 250 surveys in Bass Strait and the Great Australian Bight. Improved technology and the ability to target areas of interest mean that seismic surveying has been able to provide increasingly useful information. This results in less survey activity actually occurring, as evidenced by only five surveys in 2019, compared to 62 surveys in 1980.
Regulation of Australia's offshore oil and gas industry
Coalition Senators note evidence to the inquiry that Australia's offshore legislation and regulations ensure the development of the oil and gas industry in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way. Australia has a world‑leading, robust regulatory regime in place for the offshore oil and gas sector which governs where, when and how exploration activities, including seismic testing, can take place.
NOPSEMA is the Commonwealth regulator for offshore oil and gas and has presented to the committee in this and previous inquiries. NOPSEMA's regulatory performance has also been assessed by independent assessors and audits, which have consistently found NOPSEMA to be a highly skilled, professional and competent regulator, with appropriate processes and procedures to meet its regulatory requirements.
As a member of global regulator forums, NOPSEMA is committed to ensuring that Australia's offshore environmental performance standards remain leading-practice. Coalition Senators note that, in 2019, the Chief Scientist's audit of NOPSEMA's consideration of exploration in the Great Australian Bight confirmed that NOPSEMA has appropriate processes and practices in place to ensure environment plans are assessed against relevant scientific and technical information.
Evidence from NOPSEMA indicated that it works with industry to ensure that any risks and impacts from seismic surveying are identified, managed and mitigated to as low as reasonably practical (ALARP). Despite concerns raised by some witnesses, Coalition Senators note that ALARP is well-established as a concept and is used in the regulation of a range of industries both in Australia (for examples aviation) and internationally.
Proponents are required to consult with relevant persons (individuals or organisations) who may be affected by a proposed petroleum activity, such as navigation or fishing. The offshore petroleum industry is required to work with fishing groups to ensure that industry practices are sustainable and that both industries can work in and benefit from Australia's offshore resources. Coalition Senators acknowledge concerns raised by some sections of the fishing industry that there can be considerable variation in the scope and value of interaction with some proponents in respect to consultation and compensation and that measures to improve consistency would be valuable.
The key document that is assessed by NOPSEMA in regards to seismic surveying is the environment plan (EP). The EP is a transparent public document available on the NOPSEMA website, that applies risk and impact evaluation to determine the environmental management strategies needed to meet the objects of the Regulations.
Sub-regulation 11A(1) of the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Regulations (OPGGS Regulations) requires petroleum titleholders who are preparing an EP for petroleum activities, including seismic surveying, to identify relevant stakeholders, in the following defined categories:
Each department or agency of the Commonwealth Government to which the activities to be carried out under the EP, or a revision of the plan, may be relevant.
Each department or agency of a state or the NT Government to which the activities to be carried out under the EP, or the revision of the plan, may be relevant.
The department of the responsible state minister, or the responsible NT minister.
A person or organisation whose functions, interests or activities may be affected by the activities to be carried out under the EP, or the revision of the plan.
Any other person or organisation that the titleholder considers relevant.
An EP is submitted to NOPSEMA for assessment prior to the commencement of an activity, such as seismic surveying, which contains information on environmental assessment, implementation of environmental management, details of the titleholder and other information. Titleholders must demonstrate that their activities will be undertaken in a manner consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) and carried out such that environmental impacts and risks will be reduced to ALARP.
Be appropriate for the nature and scale of the seismic survey;
Demonstrate that the environmental impacts and risks of the seismic survey will be reduced to levels that are ALARP and acceptable;
Provide for appropriate environmental performance outcomes (EPO), environmental performance standards (EPS) and measurement criteria;
Include an appropriate implementation strategy and monitoring, recording and reporting arrangements;
Not involve activities being undertaken in any part of a World Heritage property;
Demonstrate that appropriate consultation has been carried out by the titleholder and that the measures the titleholder intends to adopt as a result of consultation are appropriate; and
Provide the basis for compliance with the requirements of the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (the OPGGS Act) and the OPGGS Regulations.
In respect to consultation as part of this process, Coalition Senators note that, as an organisation whose functions, interests or activities may be affected by the activities, 'local government' is already within the scope of relevant persons or stakeholders a proponent is required to consider.
NOPSEMA is capable of making well-informed decisions based on a number of factors, including the existing body of scientific research, through ensuring the best available science and appropriate mitigation measures are applied by proponents including on cumulative impacts.
In circumstances where there is a level of scientific uncertainty about the potential impacts of a seismic survey, NOPSEMA applies greater precaution in its decision-making and titleholders are required to apply greater precaution when predicting levels of harm and managing their activities.
Coalition Senators note that, as recently as 2017 in this committee's report into Oil or gas production in the Great Australian Bight, Labor Senators in their additional comments also recognised that 'the Australian offshore oil and gas industry is subject to one of the most rigorous environmental and safety regimes in the world' and recognised the independence and expertise of NOPSEMA.
Review of the EPBC Act
Coalition Senators note that the report by Professor Graeme Samuel on his review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), including the policy statements and recommendations, is currently being considered by government and that a first tranche of legislation to amend the Act is currently before the Parliament.
In reference to the aim of Policy Statement 2.1, this is intended to:
provide practical standards to minimise the risk of acoustic injury to whales in the vicinity of seismic survey operations;
provide a framework that minimises the risk of biological consequences from acoustic disturbance from seismic survey sources to whales in biologically important habitat areas or during critical behaviours; and
provide guidance to both proponents of seismic surveys and operators conducting seismic surveys about their legal responsibilities under the EPBC Act.
NOPSEMA already applies the requirements as set out in the EPBC Act and the relevant policy statements. This includes, but is not limited to:
limiting activities to certain times of the year when whales and other marine mammals are either unlikely to be present or not in critical parts of the lifecycle (migration);
commonly requiring trained whale spotters and the use of aircraft for seismic surveys;
using safety zones to minimise the likelihood of significant impacts to occur to marine mammals. The safety zones typically include observation and shut-down zones. In the observation zone, the movement of marine mammals is monitored to determine whether they are approaching or entering the shut-down zone. When a marine mammal is sighted in or appears to enter the shutdown zone, the seismic activity must be stopped immediately.
NOPSEMA has also published an information paper on Acoustic Impact Evaluation and Management that sets out measures that can be utilised to address scientific uncertainty on the use of seismic testing.
Coalition Senators note the evidence of the approach taken by other nations in similar matters. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, in advising the government on its response to the review of the EPBC Act, should consider Policy Statement 2.1—Interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales: Industry Guidelines in the light of the NZ approach to evaluate the possibility of expanding the scope to other relevant marine animals and whether there is a requirement to specify the use of best practice methods, equipment and qualifications of staff.
Development and use of lower impact technologies
Coalition Senators note that there are a number of emerging technologies under development which may reduce the potential for environmental impacts from seismic surveys, either through increased effectiveness (therefore less exposure time) or through decreased exposure levels.
Evidence indicated that advances in seismic processing through the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are promising, and could lead to improvements in the management of existing seismic data by applying big data analytics to develop broader, basin-wide geophysical and petroleum system models.
Machine learning techniques are now also beginning to be applied to seismic reprocessing to achieve uplifts in quality, reducing the need to undertake new seismic surveys in areas where the quality of original datasets were problematic. As these technologies continue to improve, they will allow improved use of existing datasets and the need for more seismic acquisition should be further reduced.
Evidence to the committee indicated that seismic surveying, processing and interpretation work is continually refined by companies as technologies improve. Coalition Senators note evidence from Beach Energy Limited (Beach Energy) that it is proposing to trial three alternative acquisition technologies for its proposed Prion 3D marine seismic survey. Coalition Senators particularly note evidence by the International Association of Geophysical Contractors that there are both commercial and environmental reasons why the new technologies have not yet been more widely used. The evidence highlighted that alternative technologies, such as marine vibroseis, are not yet commercialised, have not yet been shown to provide comparable seismic data quality, and any possible environmental benefits have not yet been demonstrated.
Coalition Senators support efforts to develop low impact technology and note NOPSEMA's assessment that lower impact technologies are showing promise, but cannot support recommendations that on the face of it, require proponents to adopt technology that is not yet proven effective from either an industry or environmental perspective.
Research, funding, consultation, and the sharing of data
Coalition Senators support the intent of improving the collaboration, scope and long-term funding for research into the impacts of seismic testing. Agencies including Geoscience Australia (GA), the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the CSIRO all play an important role in contributing to and considering the science behind the impacts of seismic noise on the marine environment, and the potential applications of new technology.
The committee took evidence about AIMS' research, including the North West Shoals to Shore Research Program. This is an example of multi‑disciplinary, real-world research that will contribute to the body of knowledge on this topic. A part of this research includes 'Theme 1 – Marine Noise Impacts' which involves experiments using a dedicated seismic vessel in 'real world' conditions on the North West Shelf of Western Australia. The project is assessing the impacts of seismic surveys on the behaviour of commercially caught finfish, the composition of demersal fish assemblages and the ability of pearl oysters to produce a market quality pearl. An experiment of this scale and scope is a first in Australian waters.
GA has ongoing research to improve data collection methods and interpretation. GA has also undertaken studies on fish behaviour and scallop condition, as well as providing recommendations for future impact assessments and experimental design.
The CSIRO has contributed to the scientific understanding of baseline conditions of the marine environment, and the understanding of habitats and species biodiversity, including through the Great Australian Bight Research Program and the National Environment Science Program Marine Biodiversity Hub.
Industry also extensively funds independent research on the impacts of seismic surveying, for example, the Sound and Marine Life Joint Industry Program, managed by the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers.
Part of this program funded the Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys (BRAHSS) Project, led by researchers from the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney's Institute of Marine Science, and Curtin University. The project is a major research undertaking aimed at understanding how humpback whales respond to seismic surveys and had the objective of providing information that will allow seismic surveys to be conducted efficiently with minimal impact on whales.
The committee also heard evidence from Beach Energy about its $2–4 million study, in conjunction with the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, using a survey vessel with a full array to research scallop and lobster response to seismic testing in real‑world conditions.
Scientific research plays an important role in informing the effective management of Australia's offshore environment and resources. Coalition Senators note the broad range of stakeholders engaged in funding or conducting research and support increasing the efficacy of the existing and future investment into research through enhanced collaboration.
Coalition Senators agree that industry should be encouraged to share data that it collects through seismic surveys and other activities—provided it is not commercially sensitive—especially around impacts on the environment and fisheries. Likewise, we support the concept that entities that are proven to have intentionally or carelessly caused harm to the environment should be responsible for remediation. Coalition Senators cannot, however, support the recommendation of the majority report to unilaterally and arbitrarily impose a levy on an industry sector without evidence to prove environmental harm nor attribution of liability.
The policy mechanism of Good Standing Agreements
Evidence was provided to the committee regarding Good Standing Agreements (GSAs), a policy mechanism to enable defaulting titleholders to maintain their 'good standing' with a Joint Authority after permit cancellation or expiration in default.
A GSA is currently a voluntary arrangement and it is up to the individual companies to make a request to the Joint Authority to enter into a GSA. Eligibility criteria are set out in the publicly available Offshore Petroleum Exploration Guideline on the National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator's website.
GSAs require an expenditure directly by petroleum companies of a monetary value agreed with the Joint Authority to offset the work commitment that has not been delivered. Once a value for a GSA has been agreed, companies work with the Joint Authority to determine their expenditure options, which can be either bidding on an uncontested acreage release area, within two bidding rounds of the annual offshore petroleum exploration acreage release; and/or a regional study which is of broad relevance to the Australian petroleum industry, with the results of the study to be made open file as soon as possible.
Where the Joint Authority agrees to regional studies, the studies are to be completed within three years of the date of execution of the GSA. Coalition Senators support consideration of whether reform of the eligibility criteria and conditions for GSAs is a suitable approach to encourage increased industry investment in relevant research.
Public consultation requirements and the acreage release process
The committee received considerable evidence regarding the approvals and consultation required before any offshore petroleum activity can begin in Commonwealth waters.
Australia's marine management framework establishes that no single user has exclusive rights to the offshore area. This is supported by the OPGGS Act, which requires that operators must carry out offshore activities in a manner which does not interfere with other marine users rights to a greater extent than is necessary and includes a requirement not to interfere with a range of activities including navigation, fishing, conservation, native title rights, or any other lawful oil or gas exploration activities.
The company proposing an activity must obtain an offshore petroleum title, which entitles the holder (or an applicant for a Special Prospecting Authority) the right to apply for other regulatory approvals/permissions, such as an environment plan.
In recognition of the multi-use nature of the marine environment, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources undertakes public consultation over potential areas for release.
Following the consultation process, the Joint Authority then makes a decision on the final areas to be released in the relevant offshore area. This decision includes the outcomes of public consultation.
Exploration permits are awarded to the company most likely to achieve the fullest assessment of the petroleum potential, within specified timeframes and who have a satisfactory record of past performance in accordance with section 1.42 of the Offshore Petroleum Exploration Guideline: Work-bid and subsection 106(3) of the OPGGS Act.
Biologically important areas and excluded areas
Coalition Senators note that the Commonwealth Marine Area is a matter of national environmental significance protected under Part 3 of the EPBC Act.
Australian Marine Parks have been established within the Commonwealth Marine Area to protect and conserve biodiversity and other natural, cultural and heritage values (Marine Park Values), while allowing for ecologically sustainable use and enjoyment of their natural resources.
Activities in and around the Commonwealth Marine Area are closely scrutinised. This is critical to give the community confidence that Australia's marine environment is well protected.
EPs for seismic activities must include relevant information and analysis that underpins a clear and well-founded case for why the activity will not be inconsistent with the management plan for an Australian Marine Park, and that the environmental risks and impacts of the activity are of an acceptable level. This includes taking into consideration marine park values and demonstrating that the impacts of the activity will not have unacceptable impacts on those values.
Coalition Senators note that NOPSEMA cannot accept any EP for an activity in a marine park not consistent with the management plan governing that park. The Chief Scientist's audit of NOPSEMA's consideration of exploration in the Great Australian Bight found that NOPSEMA has well documented processes to appropriately take into account matters protected under the EPBC Act and Australian Marine Park Values as part of the assessment process.
The coexistence of the offshore oil and gas industry with the fishing industry
Coalition Senators note that NOPSEMA and the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources are working together to promote and encourage effective engagement and consultation with offshore oil and gas companies and the fishing industry in relation to the potential impacts on their activities on other marine users, including fisheries.
Coalition Senators also note that the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, NOPSEMA and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment are reviewing good practice arrangements in other jurisdictions, with a view to developing a model for engagement that can provide certainty for all stakeholders in the Australian context.
Options to manage interactions between seismic surveys and commercial fisheries in the Commonwealth marine area, such as the development of guidelines or the establishment of an independent arbitration body, are being considered by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. This includes the development of a standardised framework to enhance and facilitate effective cooperation between these two important industries.
Evidence provided to the committee by stakeholders in the fishing industry highlighted that development of guidelines to provide for a nationally consistent approach to compensation and the creation of an arbitration function independent of the proponent is warranted and is supported by Coalition Senators.
Senator the Hon David Fawcett
Senator Sam McMahon