Beachgoers enjoying Manly Beach. Image Credit: Getty Images

Iconic Australian Beaches Threatened By Controversial Oil Drilling Licence

Some of Australia's most iconic stretches of sand (not to mention the livelihoods and lifestyles of over 6 million Australians) could be under threat, thanks to a controversial licence which allows fossil fuel companies to drill the ocean bed between Newcastle and Manly.

The Surfrider Foundation Australia is calling on Australians to protest ‘PEP-11’ – a licence to drill for oil and gas just off the coast from Manly to Newcastle in New South Wales, which the government is burying its head in the sand about.

The licence (Petroleum Exploration Permit 11, aka PEP-11), is an offshore oil and gas exploration permit currently held by Advent Energy and Bounty Oil and Gas. The company plans to build oil rigs and drill off the NSW coast. However, its license expired in February 2021.

While it has applied to renew its application, many residents from the NSW community have sprung into action against it, with some environmentalists saying it could lead to leaks, destroy marine life and affect our climate. It’s also, The Surfrider Foundation, argues, antithetical to Destination NSW’s ‘Love NSW’ tourism campaign.

Surfrider Foundation explains: “PEP-11 stands for Petroleum Exploration Permit 11, a licence to drill for oil and gas just off the coast from Manly to Newcastle in New South Wales, a total of 4576 km, the equivalent to 83 Sydney Harbours. In some parts, PEP-11 comes within 6 kilometers of the shoreline.”

This stretch includes some of Australia’s most iconic beaches.

Paddle out protest against PEP-11. Image Credit: Tim Seaton/The Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation’s concern is that: “If fossil fuel companies are allowed to drill the ocean bed, this may lead to oil spill, gas leaks and could severely damage NSW’s coastline, affecting the livelihoods and lifestyles of over 6 million Australians, and disrupting one of the world’s largest whale migration routes.”

The Surfrider Foundation adds: “This also runs counterproductive to what Destination NSW’s ‘Love NSW’ campaign seeks to achieve, potentially driving away visitors from the previously pristine coastline and hampering the NSW 1 Government’s goal of tripling expenditure within the State’s visitor economy by 2030.”

Member of Parliament, Zali Steggall introduced the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (Stopping PEP-11) Bill 2021 on 18 October 2021, which proposed a law to ban offshore oil and gas drilling between the coastline of Manly all the way up to Newcastle. Surfrider Foundation Australia also called on the government to stop PEP-11, to protect New South Wales from being impacted.

Underpinning Surfrider Australia’s campaign was a market research study of 1,000 Australians revealing that 86% of respondents were not aware of what PEP-11 was. When told about the specifics, 75% did not want it to go ahead. 89% of Australians believe the federal government should prioritise protecting the economic and environmental well-being of communities in the impacted PEP-11 region.

Despite previous support from Liberal MPs along the NSW coast and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the government blocked the motion to debate and vote on the bill.

The Daily Mail reports that Ms Steggall said of this: “Communities up and down the coast are united in opposition to this project. It must be stopped. Despite all the assurances of backbench MPs and even Scott Morrison, the licence remains active. It’s clear that they are not prepared to vote for their community.”

Patagonia Surf Activist and Co-Founder of Surfer For Climate Belinda Baggs told The Daily Mail: “It makes you think are they just telling us what we want to hear? Or are they going to put their money where their mouth is? Because we need action and we need this off the cards.”

Science communicator and model Laura Wells told DMARGE it’s not just surfers and ocean lovers who have a role to play in protesting PEP-11.

“Everyone, not just Surfers or people who use and love the ocean have a role in spreading awareness about PEP-11. Drilling for oil and gas off the NSW coast affects everyone, no matter where you live.”

“The consequences of climate change from emissions and fugitive emissions from potential drilling have no boundaries. We need to harness the voices of all Australians to Stop PEP-11, and create a greener, healthier future.”

Wells told DMARGE: “Upon learning about this exploration license and the ability for it to be extended I was shocked. The thought of having potential oil and gas rigs off our beautiful coastline is ludicrous for a multitude of reasons. Economically, it’s detrimental to tourism, environmentally it will likely be devastating to ecosystems and many species, including our beautiful humpback whales and little penguins.”

Image Credit: Australian Geographic

“Looking at human health, the effects of emissions and the impacts this will have on climate change becomes detrimental to our futures. We need healthy oceans for a healthy life, and the science tells us we need to be achieving net zero emissions before 2050. Drilling for new oil and gas off the the NSW coast, or anywhere in Australia is not the answer.”

DMARGE also asked Wells what she would say to those that have criticised surfers in the past for using equipment that takes lots of oil to produce and yet protesting when the oil is drilled in their backyard. She said: “These people need to get educated and stop listening to the negative rhetoric of fossil-fuel funded politicians. We can not keep blaming the people and expect individuals to bear the brunt of climate change and reduce their personal footprints. This is a governmental and industrial issue!”

“Pressure to approve major fossil fuel projects and inadequate resourcing of our regulatory bodies, as well as uneducated politicians and politicians with economic interests often leads to the bullying, harassment and childlike undermining of those working to create a better future for all. It’s rather sad when schoolyard tactics are employed by our countries’ leaders to argue against the science and commonsense.”

Surfer looking out at South Avalon beach. Image Credit: Tim Seaton/The Surfrider Foundation

Wells also said that the connection many coastal residents feel for their environment could be a good place to start when it comes to connecting with one another, and convincing politicians to change tack.

“Anyone who spends time outside, in and amongst nature usually harbours great respect for their surroundings. Just being in nature, sitting, reading, walking or using it for hobbies like surfing or SCUBA grows an appreciation for the elements, witnesses ecosystem interactions and usually has a wild story of connection between themselves and another creature.”

“We can tap into this connection and help people grow it by encouraging people to get outside and when we do that we grow the army of people wanting to protect its beauty. Not many people are aware of PEP-11, but thanks to the hard work of Surfrider Australia and surfers for climate, more and more surfers and ocean lovers know about it and want to stop it in its tracks. Now we need to grow our fellow climate champions and spread awareness far and wide to stop this from moving forward and create that ‘better future’ for everyone.”

The Surfrider Foundation, Surfers for Climate and Save our Coasts are all still fighting for this cause, despite the bill against PEP-11 not being given the time of day in parliament. Concerned citizens can get involved by getting in touch with their local MPs, signing petitions and getting educated about PEP-11.

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