GREENS MOTION: World Heritage listing for Great Australian Bight

Mark today moved a motion calling on the SA State Government to work with the Federal Government to seek listing under the World Heritage Convention of the waters, seabed and coastline of the Great Australian Bight, as a matter of urgency.

I move:

That this council—

1. Notes that proposals to drill for oil and gas in the Great Australian Bight pose enormous risks to the marine environment, the fishing industry and tourism in South Australia; and

2. Calls on the state government to work with the federal government to seek listing under the World Heritage Convention of the waters, seabed and coastline of the Great Australian Bight as a matter of urgency.

The Great Australian Bight is a rich biological wonderland where 85 per cent of the marine species are found nowhere else on earth. It is a critical habitat for a range of threatened and endangered species, including 29 whale species, sharks, sea lions, tuna, turtles, fish and migratory birds. It is also one of only two southern feeding grounds in the world for the blue whale.

The Head of Bight, which I have visited and I expect many other members have as well, is the most significant southern right whale nursery in the world, where mothers spend months caring for and nurturing their young in the safe, secluded waters. The environment and underwater landscape is so diverse that scientists are yet to fully understand the richness of this complex ecosystem. Just last year, scientists discovered 275 species, and a further 887 species already known to science were found in the Bight for the first time. This is according to the report of the $20 million four-year Great Australian Bight Research Program, which involves South Australian government partners and the CSIRO as well as the University of Adelaide and Flinders University.

The Bight is also important for commercial fishing and generates 25 per cent of Australia's seafood by value and supports the nation's largest commercial fishery by volume, the South Australian sardine fishery. Indigenous communities have strong cultural connections to the region, and many coastal towns rely on the pristine marine environment that underpins aquaculture, fisheries, recreational fishing and ecotourism industries.

The Great Australian Bight, however, is also being targeted by oil and gas interests, with the region likely to come under increasing pressure in coming years, which is why it is important to provide the region with the highest possible level of environmental protection. The most important question for governments, for legislators and for the community is whether oil or gas mining in the Great Australian Bight is compatible with protection of these proven environmental values. I think the answer is clearly no.

Members may be aware of some oceanographic modelling that was undertaken three years ago which showed what would happen in the case of a modest oil leak in the Great Australian Bight. The results were frightening. The study, led by leading oceanographer and coastal scientist Laurent Lebreton and reviewed by the marine consulting firm eCoast Limited, modelled the potential impacts of an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight caused by the blowout of an oil drilling rig that led to the uncontrolled release of crude oil at the seabed into the water column—in other words, a situation similar to BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster, which released nearly a billion litres of oil into the marine environment, which had a multibillion dollar hit to the local economy and a devastating impact on wildlife.

Closer to home, we could look at the Montara oil spill off the coast of Western Australia, which spewed millions of litres of oil into the Timor Sea over 74 days in 2009 and affected 6,000 square kilometres of ocean and countless millions of marine creatures. The oceanographic modelling commissioned by the Wilderness Society considered two seasons—summer and winter—and four oil spill scenarios. Regardless of the oil spill release scenario, the numerical models predicted that in the short term, in the event of a blowout in the Great Australian Bight, crude oil lost in the marine environment is likely to impact the shores of Western Australia should the event occur in summer, whereas it would most likely reach Eyre Peninsula and Spencer Gulf in South Australia if the incident should happen during winter.

In the long term, though, the numerical model predicts that remaining droplets of oil at the sea surface would progressively leave the Great Australian Bight and transit towards the Tasman Sea, through Bass Strait and around Tasmania. Under winter conditions, for a blowout scenario representing a spill of 5,000 barrels of oil per day for 87 days, a time similar to the Montara blowout and around half the time of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the model predicts that within four months an area of approximately 265,000 square kilometres—from the proposed exploration well to the entrance of Spencer Gulf, reaching Eyre Peninsula and Kangaroo Island—would have an 80 per cent chance of having a surface oil thickness above levels likely to trigger the closure of fisheries.

This represents an enormous risk to our state. My view, and the position of the Greens, is that risking this unique marine environment is irresponsible. It is short-sighted and it is a disaster for the climate. That is why we were pleased that both BP and Chevron have pulled out of the Bight and why we are continuing to put pressure on Norwegian company Statoil to do likewise.

World Heritage listing of the Great Australian Bight will be a powerful and unifying symbol of the importance of this region and a reminder of the obligation that we have, not just to South Australians but to the citizens of the world, to ensure that our special places are properly protected. Currently, there is only one World Heritage site in South Australia, and that is the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites, which is a joint listing between Riversleigh in Queensland and Naracoorte in South Australia. That was added to the list in 1994, and it is one of the world's 10 greatest fossil sites. If the Great Australian Bight was also listed on the World Heritage register, it would be a point of great pride to have a second World Heritage site in our state.

The question arises: is the Great Australian Bight important enough? Would it qualify for World Heritage listing? People might think, 'It's not the pyramids of Egypt. It's not the Taj Mahal. It's not the Grand Canyon. Would it qualify?' The answer is that clearly it would. When you look at the 10 criteria for World Heritage listing, there are at least two that the Great Australian Bight clearly satisfies.

They are criterion number (ix):

to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

And criterion number (x):

to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

As I said before, the scientific studies that were undertaken just last year using funds provided by the South Australian government and resources provided by our universities, as well as CSIRO, showed that this is a remarkable biological region. It would clearly qualify as World Heritage. But World Heritage does not happen by mistake, by accident or by itself. It requires both nation states and subnational governments to get on board and to promote the listing at UNESCO in Paris as part of the United Nations.

The role of the state government here, I think, is quite clear. If the South Australian government agrees with the Greens that the risk to the commercial fishing industry, the tourism industry and to our environment itself is too great, then it cannot just wash its hands and pretend that this is a matter for the feds, that the oil drilling in question is not in state waters, it is in federal waters. I do not think it is sufficient for the state government to wash their hands. There are things that the state government can do.

Getting behind World Heritage listing is one measure that it could take. Another measure that it could take is to use the planning system to send a clear message to these oil companies that, whilst they might be able to get permission from the feds for offshore activities, they are not going to get permission for the necessary onshore activities, which are all governed by state law, in particular by our planning and development laws. There are lots of things that the state government can do. If the state government is serious about protecting the environment, protecting the economy and protecting the tourism industry, then they should get behind the push for World Heritage listing for the Great Australian Bight.