But right now, the great sea Countries of the south are under threat from dangerous industrial extraction projects on an enormous scale. “The biggest threat to our southern oceans is massive gas expansion,” says Belinda. Gas is a dangerous fossil fuel that threatens our climate and community. The science is abundantly clear — there can be no new gas, coal or oil developments if we have a chance of restoring a safe climate.
“If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency and one of the world’s leading energy economists, stated, way back in May last year. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations’ secretary general, agrees: "New funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is delusional."
We know that we urgently need to stop polluting our world with dirty coal and gas and supercharge a just transition to a clean energy future powered by the sun, the wind and other forms of renewable energy. But despite promises to take real and urgent action on climate, the Victorian state government and the Albanese government have chosen to support dangerous new offshore gas exploration and drilling projects in the south. Big Gas has already been given the green light to conduct industrial drilling operations just off the Great Ocean Road, next door to the globally renowned Twelve Apostles. Both governments are backing big dirty gas corporations — like Beach, Cooper and ConocoPhillips — and huge tech companies like TGS and Schlumberger, who are hellbent on turning the great Southern Ocean into the great southern industrial gas zone. More than 31,000 square kilometres of pristine southern sea Country in the Otway Basin has been handed over to the oil and gas giants to explore for new drilling sites in the past two years alone.
Gas exploration means seismic surveying. Explosive shock waves — measuring over 250 decibels or twice as loud as the sound of a jet plane taking off — erupt into the ocean every few seconds, for 24 hours a day and potentially months on end. Mega corporations Schlumberger and TGS are planning to conduct what may just be the largest seismic survey for oil and gas in history, covering more than 90,000 square km of seabed — an area larger than lutruwita/Tasmania — and lasting for over five years.
“Unfortunately, sound travels really fast and really far underwater,” explains scientist Annie Ford, who has also previously worked on seismic vessels as an expert Marine Fauna Observer. “It doesn’t attenuate over long distances, so it doesn’t only impact the seabed beneath the seismic airgun but it radiates throughout the ocean.”
“We’re learning that the impacts of seismic surveying are far-reaching. They’re displacing, they’re damaging and they are killing marine species that are in the vicinity. For example, recent research was conducted on scallops, which the fishing industry pushed for after witnessing a mass die-off event. The scallops were found to have a dose-dependent mortality associated with exposure — basically, the more seismic scallops were exposed to, the more were found to die. This resulted in enormous die-back throughout significant areas of Bass Strait, and millions of dollars lost. There’s also been huge reductions in flathead and whiting catches throughout the same area off Lakes Entrance. What’s more, these are only the commercially valuable species — there’s been no research conducted into the ecologically valuable species in the same area, and the interconnectedness of these impacts.”
The impacts of seismic blasting at the scale proposed by TGS and Schlumberger are terrifying. “Our ancient culture should be held in high regard by Australia and the rest of the world,” says Yaraan Bundle. “Our ancient knowledge systems support, nurture, and respect life. Our ocean — the breathing blue lungs of our planet must be protected. Companies like Schlumberger are completely disregarding us as the custodians caring for the future of our Country. It’s been scientifically proven that seismic blasting directly affects all cetaceans and sea mammals. So when we’re talking about the whale song line and the whale dreaming, this directly affects our kinship relationship to our sea Country kin. They’re our ancient family.”
“Future generations must have the human right to exist without psychological and environmentally-caused trauma,” says Robert Bundle, Yaraan’s dad and Senior Yuin Elder and Songman.
Down south in Lutruwita, Ally talks about the impacts that these dangerous surveys will have on local communities. “A lot of our little coastal towns have been built on local, small-scale fisheries that have supported families for generations. The limited science we’ve got is telling us that seismic surveying directly harms creatures like the southern rock lobster, and those impacts will flow across to the fishers and their local communities. For example, the King Island rock lobster industry brings in $22 million annually. We’re talking about a population of two thousand people and so that’s a huge contributor to the local economy — it keeps the whole island going.”
But local opposition to TGS and Schlumberger’s disastrous proposal is escalating right across the south, with critical concerns being voiced by fishers, tourism operators and thousands of local community members. Victorian councils in the Colac Otway and Surf Coast shires have officially passed motions to oppose seismic surveying in the region. Colac Otway Mayor Kate Hanson stated, “Numerous scientific studies show that seismic testing interferes with marine life, including plankton and rock lobsters. The fishing industry is vital to the Colac Otway community and economy, particularly supporting families and jobs in the Apollo Bay region.”
Ally King echoes these concerns. “People down here are angry and they’re upset. They don’t want our marine ecosystem harmed and they don’t want our beautiful coast turned into a gas field. On top of that, they feel like they’re just getting played by these huge oil and gas companies. The community feels like they’re getting pushed around.
“We don’t have confidence in NOPSEMA [the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority] and in the regulatory process,” says Ally. “We don’t have confidence in the politicians to look after our best interests. It’s really sad to see the government selling out our small coastal communities to big multinational corporations.”