BP ditches plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight

Decision follows outcry by environmentalists over risk to delicate marine ecosystem, safety concerns and a corporate review within the company

BP has decided not to go ahead with its controversial plans to drill for oil in the commonwealth marine reserve in the Great Australian Bight.

It had boasted that the Great Australian Bight had the potential to be as big an oil field as the Gulf of Mexico, where there are now more than 4,000 oil rigs.

Karoon, which just announced its plans to explore for oil last week, said the bight held “the world’s last underexplored Cretaceous basins”.

The move comes despite the company already investing millions in the venture, with a state-of-the-art oil rig being prepared in Singapore.

It is unclear where that leaves other companies with exploration licences in the region, including Chevron, Santos and Karoon.

The news comes after repeated requests for more information from the Australian regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, and growing public concerns about the impact the drilling and any potential oil spill would have on the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight.

Less than two weeks ago Nopsema found BP’s environmental plans inadequate for a third time. Nopsema said in a statement it was aware of BP’s announcement but that BP had not yet withdrawn its environmental plans.

“The environment plans submitted by BP for drilling in the Great Australian Bight remain under assessment by Nopsema. This assessment process will proceed until the environment plans are withdrawn by BP.”

But the company said in a statement the decision was purely commercial.

Claire Fitzpatrick, BP’s managing director for exploration and production, Australia, said: “This decision isn’t a result of a change in our view of the prospectivity of the region, nor of the ongoing regulatory process run by the independent regulator Nopsema. It is an outcome of our strategy and the relative competitiveness of this project in our portfolio.”

The Wilderness Society, which has been leading a campaign against the venture for several years, was thrilled with the announcement.

Peter Owen, the South Australian director of the Wilderness Society, told Guardian Australia that BP had “made the right decision”.

“Credit to BP for doing the right thing here and pulling out of this push to expand the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “It’s a pristine marine wilderness area and a totally inappropriate place to be trying to turn into an oilfield.”

Owen said the government must now step in and rescind all permits for oil and gas in the Great Australian Bight.

The national director of the Wilderness Society, Lyndon Schneiders, called on all other oil and gas companies to pull out of the Great Australian Bight.

“If BP with all its experience cannot produce an acceptable drilling plan for Nopsema, the remaining companies exploring in the bight will be wasting their shareholders’ money trying to pursue this folly,” he said.

“This decision shows that it’s too expensive to establish the significant and costly risk management and cleanup capacity infrastructure needed to protect our communities from the enormous spill risks associated with drilling in this part of the world. Clearly this is a far too high cost oil basin for any oil company to consider exploiting.”

Fitzpatrick said the venture in the bight either wasn’t competitive or didn’t align with the company’s “strategic goals”.

“We have looked long and hard at our exploration plans for the Great Australian Bight but, in the current external environment, we will only pursue frontier exploration opportunities if they are competitive and aligned to our strategic goals. After extensive and careful consideration, this has proven not to be the case for our project to explore in the bight.”

The South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young welcomed BP’s decision. “BP have said goodbye to the bight, I say good riddance to BP,” Hanson-Young said.

“The Greens have a bill before the Senate that would permanently protect the Great Australian Bight from companies that are trying to drill for oil and gas. It’s time that bill was supported, so that this precious natural environment can be protected for generations to come.”
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