Opening image: The ocean off the southwest coast of Victoria is currently in the crosshairs as the offshore gas industry aggressively expands its range. Photo Hayden O’Neill

Big Gas: The Night of the Blowout Presenters

The southwest coast of Victoria sweeps in a ragged arc from Cape Otway, vaguely northwest to the South Australian border. Offshore, at widths varying from 35 to 85 kilometres, the continental shelf follows the course of the coastline like a shadow: the cliff-edge that separates the shallow inshore plateau from the abyssal depths beyond.


On that shallow plateau, unseen humans have drawn a series of theoretical squares. These squares, known as “SPAs” (Special Prospecting Authorities), mark available plots for exploration and the eventual extraction of fossil fuels. Some have been taken up and turned to production, such as the gas fields at Port Campbell. Others lie idle, awaiting study. That study is the quietly chattering keyboards of computers, the mild drag and click of a mouse. It is also a 240-decibel pulse of sound, delivered by a ship into the ocean every 12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks on end.


In the first week of May, word swept through our little town that the gas people were coming. Some of us knew that there was interest in an SPA that came within five kilometres of shore, a field that would be visible from beachfront homes. For others this news was sudden, a shocking intrusion into the sleepy inconsequence of coastal life. They can’t do that here. Nobody does stuff like that here.

The first week of May is a particular time around here. Nearby Warrnambool hosts its race week, an event big enough that we’ve swapped our Melbourne Cup public holiday for May Race Day. Civic pride, hypothermic girls dressed in raceday glamour in the chill winds of late autumn. The whole place stops and the streets are taken over by revellers and visiting punters in bomber jackets.

Coincidental, then, that Conoco Phillips, the gas proponent who’s been sniffing around that near-shore SPA, chose this week of all weeks to hold their community consultation here.

I stood in the queue outside the community centre, swatting at unseasonal mozzies, and a few things immediately became apparent. Conoco Phillips had booked a very small room. And a lot of people had turned up. I saw the guy who’s an expert consultant on recreational fishing, and his wife, a marine scientist who’s written a children’s book on ocean plastics. There were surfers, farmers, a bus driver, the guy who runs the surf school, an abalone diver and an abalone farmer. The local physio, a formidable woman who once walked alone down the main street of town with a sandwich board over her shoulders protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, to no applause at all. There were kids, old people. There was a young woman who stood silently at the front of the room holding up a banner that said NO SEISMIC SURVEY, until she fled the room in a surge of emotion.

An MC materialised from among the civilians, a small woman with a severe red bob and an alarming resemblance to Frau Farbissina. She was taking notes, taking names. She handed the kick-off over to an affable-looking big man who was a Doug or a Nick or something. Something unthreatening. You could sink a beer with this Doug, or Nick. "Gosh," he commented. "Didn’t think we’d see so many faces in Race Week." He half-laughed into the stony silence, then decided to push on. More people were coming in, necessitating a lot of chair shuffles.

Doug or Nick explained that he was the community liaison guy for Conoco Phillips. He had previously worked at the national regulator, NOPSEMA. This stunning admission of conflict landed in the room like a dead fish, but he seemed blissfully unaware. Perhaps it’s business as usual in fossil fuels that the umpires become players, and that the logical inverse – that players become umpires – also pertains. Who knows. He liked his job, that was clear.

Doug or Nick explained that this was just a consultation meeting, just a little something to help us understand what they were up to. Meet the team, try to the sandwiches up the back (they’re good). This was not the time to protest or to ask thorny questions about emissions if you don’t mind, guys. If you want to do that, you need to register as a Relevant Person. (Needless to say, later googling reveals there are no cetaceans, molluscs, crustaceans, fin-fish or seabirds registered as Relevant Persons.)

A surfer with zinc in his ears had positioned himself in the middle of the room with a laptop on his knee and a homemade badge on his shirt that said Relevant Person. He’d been to this rodeo before. If Doug or Nick noticed these ominous signs, he showed no indication.

The presentation ground on and a grim battle of attrition emerged. We’ll be taking a vote at the end of this meeting, the surfer announced. Doug or Nick gave him a big, friendly smile and explained that it wasn’t that sort of meeting – it was an information night. “That’s cool,” replied the surfer. “But if you frame this as neutral, just an information night, it becomes possible to interpret a big turnout as strong community interest in your project. And we can’t have that. So we’ll take a vote, thanks” – he nodded to Frau Farbissina – “and I’ll have a copy of those notes you’re taking, too.”

Every time Doug or Nick made an assertion about the essential harmlessness of everything proposed, the surfer would raise his hand to politely stop proceedings, then fire off a surgically sharp rebuttal; at one stage even swivelling the laptop above his head to show the entire room a chart that contradicted Doug or Nick’s reassurances.

An old guy up the front launched a series of long personal anecdotes that loosely resembled questions. He was having a great night out. A guy down the back involuntarily burst out laughing at one of Doug or Nick’s assertions; he immediately apologised. “It was just funny,” he pleaded.

There was jelly slice among the sandwiches and I thought about getting someone to pass me a block. I love jelly slice. But by now I didn’t want to take the enemy’s treats.

There were PowerPoints. The area to be blasted with sound, which stretches from Peterborough in the east to Yambuk in the west, is marked on the proponents’ maps with the happy title of “activity area,” like it’s somewhere you’d take your kids to push them on a plastic swing.

There are all sorts of spotters and PhDs on the survey vessel, apparently. It was good to hear that they’re all well paid, by Conoco Phillips. They look out for whales, and if there are whales they stop the booming until they’ve left. This very sensibly puts the onus on the whales to leave the area in an orderly fashion, and enough of your backchat about migratory routes and evolution.

Doug or Nick lost his voice and pleaded for a cup of water. There was empathy. He’d been trotting out this dog ‘n’ pony show all up and down the coast. People scrambled to clear the sink and pour the water: a strange moment of hospitality amid the hostility.

Doug or Nick handed over to the technical guy to explain the drilling. This guy was an engineer and he had no interest in charm, and apparently no interest in interest itself. He hammered his way through a series of pictures and diagrams, reluctantly pausing to allow the crowd to heckle him. We did the anchoring array (eight kilometres of heavy chain laid on the sea bed without any apparent ill-effect, which the room agreed is a marvellous feat); the drill rigs (one of them is self-jacking, which seemed an apt description of the presentation); and the blowout preventer (as seen on Deepwater Horizon if you know your films).

When the engineer petered out, the surfer made good on his threat to hold a vote (Against, 42. Undecided, 9. For, 1.). The undecideds seemed genuine – among them the abalone diver, who was pragmatic and had the room’s biggest connection to commercial fishing. He was there to listen, he said.

The Lecture Hall, Port Fairy, crammed to the gunwales with locals discussing the offshore gas industry moving into town (jelly slice not included). Photo Jock Serong

The petroleum titles off the Victorian and Tasmanian coasts that ConocoPhillips are planning to seismic blast. VIC/P79 comes within 5km of the town of Port Fairy.

The meeting lasted a solid two hours.

Someone pointed out that our town’s got a history of opposition to fossil fuel extraction. It was a mainstay of the Fight For The Bight, and the overlying Shire Council had voted to declare itself a Climate Emergency Council. So why, she asked, do we have to make our opposition explicit every time? Are you trying to wear us down?

This was greeted with a display of soothing hands patting the air. Please, please. This is an information night. Such gestures – the soothing hands - have a way of ranking violence: the unpleasant business of somebody forcefully making a point is to be discouraged, hosed down. But the scaled-up violence of blasting marine creatures with soundwaves, let alone the destructive potential of any eventual drilling, can go ahead unimpeded if enough polite business is transacted. You can launch a war from a boardroom, but for god’s sake don’t raise your voice.

On the card table by the door, a neat form contained all our names, phone numbers and email addresses. We’d written them there in our own hands, apparently so these people could keep us informed. But the uneasy feeling persisted: we’d also given them the ability to keep track of us. Paranoid? Ask Eliza Kloser.

The IPCC’s latest report, released just six weeks before our little gathering, was emphatic: there must be no new fossil fuel exploration if we are to save ourselves by limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. We have far more gas already than it would take to cook the planet.

Opening image: The ocean off the southwest coast of Victoria is currently in the crosshairs as the offshore gas industry aggressively expands its range. Photo Hayden O’Neill


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