The Australian Greens strongly support the views and recommendations set out in the majority report. The Greens have further comments and an additional recommendation in relation to the impact of seismic testing on fisheries and the marine environment.
The Australian Greens acknowledge the incredible effort of the secretariat throughout this inquiry, reflected in the outstanding report produced.
We also acknowledge the thousands of contributions to this inquiry and thank those who have taken a strong stand to speak out and protect the oceans and their livelihoods.
This inquiry generated considerable public interest and has already led to change.
We thank all involved for their hard work and commitment to this most important issue and contribution to the public discourse.
Australia truly is a nation girt by sea. Most of our people, most of our population, live on or near our coastlines. Australians love our beaches, we love our coastlines, and they are such an important part of our culture.
But those coastlines, those beaches, our oceans and marine wildlife, are under extreme pressure from ocean warming, acidification, plastic pollution, invasive species and industrial fish farming. In addition to this pressure, our oceans are being put at risk by oil and gas companies searching for their next fossil fuel bonanza.
This inquiry was Australia's first inquiry into the impacts of seismic surveying from oil and gas exploration. It took three attempts to get the inquiry established with evidence provided to the committee that government ministers were keen to avoid the scrutiny of a Senate inquiry, quietly getting fishing and petroleum stakeholders together, to hammer out an alternative to an inquiry and resolve differences behind closed doors. Evidence was also forthcoming that this secretive process failed to provide comfort for commercial fishing stakeholders. The third and successful motion to establish this inquiry was moved by Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, together with Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, to understand whether the exploration for Commonwealth resources is occurring at the expense of conservation, fisheries and communities.
For the first time ever, evidence from all stakeholders came together, from both the fishing and the oil and gas industries, to environmental NGOs, governments, scientists, academics, and community groups.
The committee heard an abundance of evidence detailing the risks to our oceans and fisheries from ongoing oil and gas exploration. No witness disputed that seismic testing is potentially harmful and under-researched: what was in dispute was whether this harm was material enough to require more research, tougher regulation, operational changes, compensation schemes or a moratorium/ban on new seismic surveying.
It is clear from the evidence that the fossil fuel industry has largely been operating within a science and research vacuum on the impacts of seismic testing, with accusations they have cherry picked data that suits their interests, to the detriment of our local industries, communities and marine life. The balance of evidence also suggests that the regulatory framework is inadequate and does not sufficiently protect the environment. It was also abundantly clear to the committee that what is considered 'sufficient' or not, is highly subjective across many stakeholders.
Testimony to the committee demonstrated what has become a David and Goliath stand-off, with a handful of multinational oil and gas industry giants on one side, and multi-generational local fishing communities and ocean lovers on the other.
Inadequacy of the regulatory framework
The committee heard evidence that the current regulatory framework does not provide sufficient environmental or economic protections from the impacts of seismic surveying and gives too much latitude to a regulator who is perceived to be too close to the petroleum industry.
ALARP and Acceptability
The Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Environment) Regulations 2009 (the OPGGS Regulations) outline the criteria for acceptance of an environment plan by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).
The committee heard evidence around two criteria in particular:
demonstrate that the environmental impacts and risks of the activity will be reduced to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP); and
demonstrate that the environmental impacts and risks of the activity will be of an acceptable level.
The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) defined 'acceptable' as 'the specified amount of environmental impact and risk that an activity may have which is tolerable, is consistent with all relevant principles, and does not compromise the management/conservation/protection objectives of the environment'.
However, the committee heard evidence that the community's expectation of 'acceptable' and ALARP is radically different. These terms were noted by witnesses as being highly subjective, and it was beyond doubt that what NOPSEMA perceives as 'acceptable' is very different to what the Australian community perceives it to be.
NOPSEMA says that the principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) are essential in defining what are acceptable levels of impact and risk.
Ecologically Sustainable Development principles
NOPSEMA uses the principles of ESD during its assessment and approval processes, which are set out in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and are a key element within the objects of the OPGGS Regulations.
One of the principles of ESD is that 'decision-making processes should effectively integrate both long-term and short-term economic, environmental, social and equitable considerations'.
However, NOPSEMA has acknowledged that no cumulative or long-term ecological impacts of noise disturbance on marine animals and commercial fishing species has been studied or is known, and there remains room for improvement in data gathering and collaborative research. In its submission, NOPSEMA said:
Where physiological effects have been observed, implications at an ecologically meaningful level are unknown or untested, or the experimental design is not representative of real-world exposures. While a number of studies have found lower level impacts in specific receptors, there is often no link with long term impacts on survivability and no clear ecological consequences from these impacts.
Additionally, in its submission, NOPSEMA said:
With the exception of potential detrimental impacts and risks to socioeconomic aspects of the receiving environment, NOPSEMA does not consider economic, commercial or political factors in its decision-making processes.
This means that economic and social impacts in a community directly outside the 'receiving environment' are not considered. For example, the multiplier effects from the loss of fishing and revenue, or the impact on tourism around a seismic survey, may not considered. An example of this is the Gippsland Basin offshore Victoria study that the inquiry examined. In that study, school whiting were observed to have a 99.5 per cent drop in population levels following seismic testing by CGG Services (Australia) Pty Ltd (see Chapter 2).
In evidence, NOPSEMA acknowledged this was already understood and not in dispute, as 'fish would swim away from sound'. Presumably then, this was factored into its impact assessments. It appears however, that no economic, commercial or other impacts on the local community who catch fish in that area or rely on fishing for income, were ever assessed by NOPSEMA. Why not? This appears to directly contradict the ESD principles set out in the EPBC Act that NOPSEMA relies on for assessment and approval processes.
Another principle of ESD is that 'if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation (the 'precautionary principle')'.
However, again, the committee heard evidence that the term 'serious or irreversible environmental damage' is highly subjective and is based on what NOPSEMA considers it to be, not what the Australian community considers it to be. In the absence of research, the onus seems to be placed on those who have concerns to prove damage, rather than the proponents or regulator having to prove it does no damage.
Given NOPSEMA comprises a large number of former employees of the oil and gas industry, and their CEO was employed by Woodside and Shell prior to working for NOPSEMA, it is difficult for many stakeholders to be confident that the application of the ESD principles is made by a regulator who is totally independent of the fossil fuel industry. In matters of public interest, even perceived conflicts of interest are serious and can undermine confidence in the regulation of potential externalities.
APPEA submitted that where uncertainty exists, the purpose of the precautionary principle is 'not to halt development (or seismic)' but instead to 'guide mitigation decisions to evaluate and avoid serious or irreversible damage to the environment'.
The committee heard evidence that the Australian community expects the precautionary principle to be applied in favour of the environment, not in favour of exploration and commercial interests, and be applied to any reasonable threat of environmental damage, not just a threat of serious or irreversible environmental damage.
In evidence, NOPSEMA accepted that what the community deems unacceptable, or harmful to the environment, is different to what the current regulatory framework provides for:
CHAIR: It just seems to me throughout the course of this enquiry that the community expectation of what might be unacceptable or what might be environmental harm or serious environmental harm is probably different to the way you apply it in a scientific framework.
Mr Grebe: I think it's a good point. Put simply, the observation is that people are perhaps seeking no-impact or no-risk combined with no‑uncertainly of those two things to be the hurdle that has to be got over. That simply isn't the regulatory regime as it's defined currently, so we can't deliver on that. If those are people's expectations, then they won't be met. I'm sorry, but it won't be because we're not doing our job. It's because that's the framework of legislation that we have to apply.
On 16 February 2021, the Australian Senate called on NOPSEMA to apply the precautionary principle when independently assessing the impacts of seismic testing and processing permit applications acknowledging the research gap surrounding the impacts of seismic testing on local communities and local industries that depend on healthy oceans and coastlines.
This reflected a key hope from some witnesses and stakeholders that the precautionary principle should apply and a ban on new seismic testing be declared until its impacts on fisheries, local communities and the environment has been fully assessed.
While the Greens support this call, because of evidence provided to the committee on the narrow interpretation of the precautionary principle under the EPBC framework, it appears a ban would be unworkable without significant amendments to the EPBC Act. Given the Australian Government is trying to change EPBC laws and hand back powers to the states to regulate the environment, a political pathway to improve the EPBC Act appears unlikely for now.
No new seismic testing permits in Commonwealth waters
The Greens believe that a simpler way to achieve a ban on new seismic testing is to amend the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 (the OPGGS Act). Case studies for legislated bans on fossil fuel exploration in New Zealand, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania support this approach.
The Australian Government has acknowledged that new research is important to understanding the broader impacts of seismic testing on marine ecosystems. However, it continues to hand out permits for offshore oil and gas exploration, right around the country while being fully aware of this uncertainty, and while doing nothing to address this.
While the majority report makes important and significant recommendations that would reform seismic surveying and the risks this poses to our oceans and other stakeholders like the fishing industry, the Greens believe it didn't (and couldn't) go far enough.
As noted in the majority report (see Chapter 6), the Green Party in New Zealand worked for decades to end new offshore fossil fuel exploration and protect New Zealand's oceans. In April 2018, their efforts were realised with the New Zealand Government announcing no further offshore oil and gas exploration permits would be granted. The driving force behind Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement was creating a clean, green and sustainable future and protecting future generations from climate change.
Mr James Shaw, Leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa in New Zealand, on the announcement said:
Today we have drawn a line in the sand and set our country on the path to a clean energy, low carbon future. This represents an enormous opportunity for the creation of new jobs and new technologies that our dependence on fossil fuels has held back for too long.
As we move towards a fossil fuel-free future, we will move together – communities, government and business alike… This is truly the nuclear free moment of our generation, and the beginning of a new and exciting future.
There is no reason why Australia shouldn't be moving toward the same new and exciting future.
With a serious lack of research into the impacts of seismic testing and inadequate regulation, and in a time of climate emergency that consistently threatens our marine ecosystems, the Greens do not believe we should be risking our oceans, communities, fisheries and coastlines for the sake of a few profit-driven interests.
This is what the committee heard as it held hearings around the country, and the Greens believe the community's expectation combined with the clear evidence of unaddressed risks from seismic testing should be reflected in a strong recommendation to legislate a narrowly focused amendment to the OPGGS Act that would allow for a ban on the issuance of any new permits for offshore seismic testing, oil and gas exploration.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Australian Government amend the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006 to allow for a ban on the issuance of any new permits for offshore seismic testing, oil and gas exploration.
Sir David Attenborough said 'we cannot be radical enough when dealing with these issues' (when it comes to dealing with climate change).
The Australian Greens will continue to fight for healthy oceans and coastlines, local communities and small business. It is our time in history to be making brave decisions, take the strongest possible action on climate change, and transition our economies and our communities to a renewable energy future.
Senator Peter Whish-Wilson