Norway’s state oil company, the former Statoil that now calls itself Equinor, is facing opposition in Australia over its plans to drill for oil in The Great Australian Bight, off the country’s southern coast. Critics fear oil spills in a protected marine environment that’s also rich fishing grounds.
Fully eight Australian municipalities don’t want Equinor drilling off their coastline. The company has been met with protesters who want “our Bight” to be left undisturbed.
Some of them even traveled to Norway to protest at the company’s recent annual general meeting, where it officially changed its name from Statoil to Equinor in a move that many claim was an attempt to disassociate itself from both the state and oil. Among the protestors was the mayor of Australia’s Kangaroo Island, which fears the worst from any oil spill.
“We ask Statoil to abandon its plans to carry out risky deep-water drilling in the Great Australian Bight, and around the world,” Mayor Peter Clements read. He urged Statoil to instead invest in “cleaner renewable energy in our country.” Representatives from Australia’s tourism and fishing industries are also against the Norwegian oil company’s plans, while environmental organizations vow to “fight for our Bight.”
Norwegians not backing off
Exploration remains a key factor in Equinor’s future, however, and company officials defend their project off Australia even after both BP and Chevron pulled out of similar plans. “We have applied for an extension (with the authorities) to make sure that our environmenal plan is the best possible,” Erik Haaland, spokesman for Equinor, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He claimed the company has a lot of experience with the deep waters, wind and heavy weather often found in the Bight.
“We won’t begin anything before we’re sure we operate in a safe manner,” Haaland told NRK. He said Statoil/Equinor has had meetings with several organizations in Australia and has tried to convince them that the company won’t pollute.
Asked why Equinor thinks it worth the risk, both to the environment and to the company’s and Norway’s reputation, Haaland noted that the need for energy keeps rising, also for oil and gas. “Even though demand will peak, there will be a need to replace oil from fields that have been shut down,” he told NRK. “Record small amounts of oil and gas have been found during the past year, therefore we must exploit what we find.”
The Bight is believed to have vast undersea oil and gas reserves. It’s also known for its rare and threatened species of wildlife. Researchers fear any oil accident can destroy 30 years of international efforts to build up the tuna population, for example.
Thina Saltvedt, a former oil analyst at Nordea who now follows renewable energy, doesn’t think Equinor’s project will be profitable. “It costs a lot to operate in such vulnerable areas, and will demand a high oil price over a long period in order to make money,” Saltvedt told NRK.
She also thinks Equinor risks harming its reputation. “More and more investors are now looking for projects that also have social benefits,” Saltvedt said. “For Equinor, which has just changed its name and is using lots of time and resources to develop its new and greener brand, it would be very destructive if this project is a mistake.”
Haaland of Equinor was undaunted, and claimed that “there are many in Australia who welcome the value creation Equinor takes into the area.”