PARK WATCH Article December 2021 |

Campaigner Shannon Hurley updates us on plans for offshore drilling along our most famous coastline.

When we think about Australia’s top tourism destinations, the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles are right up there. 

Featuring stunning views along coastline-hugging roads and lush rainforest and waterfall delights, it is truly a playground for many who surf, snorkel, dive, walk, or just relax, both visitors and those lucky to call the area home.  

It is also a known biodiversity hotspot proven by its national parks that span land and sea, protecting a range of wildlife, including Short-tailed Shearwaters, Humpback and Southern Right whales and kelp forests. 

But what is unknown to many is how much this natural treasure trove has been set to be plundered to extract offshore fossil fuels, with multiple companies competing to grab their share of the underground resource.

Earlier June this year, oil and gas extraction was put in the limelight when the federal government opened up bidding for exploratory drilling rights in the Otway and Gippsland basins (as well as other areas around Australia). This would see an explosion of more drilling in these areas.

In August, the Victorian Government approved onshore/offshore gas extraction under the Port Campbell National Park near the Twelve Apostles. This approval was given for Beach Energy’s ‘Enterprise Project’ to convert their existing gas exploration well (located just north of the Port Campbell National Park) to a gas production well.

It seems crazy to allow this type of activity under a national park, especially when the National Parks Act 1975 is there to protect Victoria’s biodiversity for all time. However, under the Act, the state Environment Minister has the power to override this in some circumstances, and in this case has exercised that power in favour of the gas well.

The Enterprise Project is slightly different to other offshore projects in how they access the Otway Basin reservoir. Where most offshore projects access by drilling through the ocean floor in Commonwealth waters, the Enterprise Project uses extended reach drilling from the onshore well to traverse underneath the Port Campbell National Park and then offshore to access a gas reservoir underneath the seabed near the Twelve Apostles. 

Beach Energy’s environmental plan has not been released publicly, making it unclear what impacts have been considered and what the risks are for gas extraction going ahead at such a prime location along the Great Ocean Road. 

Research on the impacts on our seas from offshore operations generally is limited, and often kept behind closed doors of the companies undertaking the exploration or production. Studies have shown these activities can threaten the lifecycle of important marine life, such as Rock Lobster and Scallops. Also of concern are the potential impacts on groundwater from the extraction process.

Generally speaking, offshore fossil fuel projects seem to be more ‘out of sight, out of mind’. In our view, they have poor regulatory frameworks and processes and a poor history of undertaking thorough community consultation. 

We have asked for the environmental plan to be released publicly.  

The Greens introduced a motion into Victorian Parliament in October to overturn this approval, but there were not enough votes to overturn the decision. Most members voted to allow it to proceed to the extraction stage due to the ‘need’ to continue to add gas to the market.

We supported moves to reject Beach Energy’s drilling plans due to the uncertainty of what impacts have been assessed. We believe the process may not be aligned with Victoria’s Marine and Coastal Policy, which states that industry must be planned for and managed in a coordinated way that minimises impacts and risks to the marine and coastal environment, and takes into account and minimise direct, cumulative impacts. 

What might the potential cumulative impacts of all offshore oil and gas projects be on the Otway Basin? Has this even been considered by the state and federal governments?

Continuing to open up more of our marine areas to gas and oil exploration and extraction sets a dangerous precedent and doesn’t align with the Andrews Government’s professed ambitions to mitigate against climate change.

We would like to see more emphasis on managing these issues in the current draft of Victoria’s Marine and Coastal Strategy (see page 22). We put forward that the final strategy needs to include the development of a strategic and integrated process for assessing marine energy proposals that embeds thorough community consultation and Traditional Owner engagement. 

Whether gas exploration and drilling is in federal waters (beyond five kilometres from the coastline) or operating in Victoria, the state government has a critical part to play in providing consent before any projects ‘go down’. 

We have attempted to understand what the process from here on is for the Enterprise Project. Given the exploration well is already in place, turning it into a production well involves a new pipeline to connect the well site to the existing gas processing facility, the Otway Gas Plant. There are other consents and approvals that must be sought for the pipeline and gas well before Beach Energy can proceed with gas extraction planned for next summer 2022/3. We will keep you updated.


Did you like reading this article? You can read the latest full edition of Park Watch magazine online here.

Want to be kept up to date about this and other nature issues in Victoria? Subscribe to our email updates.

You can also receive our print magazine Park Watch four times a year by becoming a member. Find out more here.