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Adjournment Speech - Kangaroo Island is Too Precious to Lose

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (20:23): Tonight I would like to take the opportunity to draw attention to a place that is too precious to lose. It is a place that is seriously threatened by attempts to expand an industry which, in the face of increasingly dangerous climate change, is now an anachronism: mining for fossil fuels at the end of the fossil-fuel age.

This is a marine environment in a special region called the Kangaroo Island canyons and Kangaroo Island pool. It is a region of huge importance, both to wild life and to the rural communities of Kangaroo Island and the Eyre Peninsula, in my home state of South Australia. These are communities that are based on fishing, farming and tourism. They are communities which are treasured by South Australians and they are communities which are important to the South Australian economy.

The Kangaroo Island canyons and pool make up a flourishing area, with deep canyons where sperm whales dive for squid, spreading plains where sea lions forage and nooks and crannies where rock lobsters thrive. It is a region that is rich with the ancient upwelling waters from the Southern Ocean and the pounding force driven by the Leeuwin Current far to the west. Here we can also find majestic blue whale, southern right whales, dwarf sperm whales, beaked whales, fin whales and sei whales, as well as significant numbers of other cetaceans. It is also home to Australian sea lions, New Zealand and Australian fur seals, a number of nationally threatened seabirds, great white shark, school shark and the endangered southern bluefin tuna.

Unfortunately, this is also place where Bight Petroleum proposes to survey around 3,000 square kilometres found 105 kilometres to the west of Kangaroo Island and 68 kilometres to the south of Cape Carnot on the Eyre Peninsula.

Bight Petroleum are looking for oil and gas. In their hunt they propose to use a so-called dual source array, a series of airguns, each up to 3,250 cubic inches, operating at a pressure of 2000 psi, to survey the ocean floor. The sound intensity generated with the array will be 228 dB in relation to water. Bight plan to operate this array for 55 days over a two-month period. This will involve sound shots every 11 seconds, or 25 metres, transmitted continuously day and night. By any measure, the sound it makes will be loud, aggressive and relentless. It is a sound that none of the marine creatures in this region are adapted to tolerate. Imagine, Madam Deputy President, the sound and vibration of a cannon exploding nearby every 11 seconds for two solid months.

Decades of peer-reviewed science and research tell us that seismic surveys harm marine mammals and fish, and that the consequent loss of prey can harm whole ecological systems. In the end, this region is so precious both to marine species and to human beings that precaution must win the day. Local rural economies are highly dependent on their environmental integrity. For Kangaroo Island and the Eyre Peninsula this includes the marine environment that surrounds them. This proposal threatens these communities in serious ways.

The Kangaroo Island community, in particular, has little resilience because it has a resident population of just over 4,500 and yet receives 200,000 visitors each year. In 2011 to 2012, 40,000 of those visitors were international tourists. The island economy is based on tourism, agriculture, fishing, forestry and a range of activities that service these industries. It has a high employment participation rate of 70 per cent and a lower than average unemployment rate of four per cent. These figures are the result of the fact that residents do not stay on the island when jobs are not available.

Any impact on the fishing or tourism industry poses a significant threat to the population of the island and this then undermines the community social structure and social resilience. For instance, a loss of one fishing family from the island will lead to the loss of key members of the local CFS, fire brigade, ambulance service and sporting teams. A loss of one fishing family removes children from schools and can lead to losses of whole businesses from the island. The social history is broken. The loss of a family can also represent the loss of future generations as most of the Kangaroo Island fishers and farmers are generational. These families see their businesses not only as monetary assets but also as something they are able to pass on to future generations. The social and economic ripples are felt so much more acutely in small rural communities like this than in large, more resilient cities.

The Kangaroo Island community has been brave and has vigorously engaged in responding to this proposal of Bight Petroleum. The Kangaroo Island council requested that both Bight and the federal government referral process be transparent and take into account the concerns of the island's fishing, tourism and environmental community. The council provided a highly detailed document to Bight Petroleum in mid-2012, which carefully articulated the community's concerns, including the potential impact on Kangaroo Island's rock lobster and fin fishing industry, its tourism reputation and the impact on marine species such as Australian sea lions and migratory whales, as well as resident common and bottlenose dolphins. The council also voiced its concern that the exploration lease carried an implied commercial expectation to advance to production, and yet the potential risks from production, including a permanent rig, increased shipping, and the potential for an oil spill have not been considered in the process.

Since Bight's original referral, many individuals have provided extensive valuable hours of unpaid work. There has been open and productive debate in the local paper, and the community has developed a strong consensus of concern. But despite this, the burden of proof has been deftly shifted. With its concerns dismissed by Bight Petroleum without any substantiation, the community is now forced to prove its case.

The first referral for approval of seismic testing was submitted by Bight on 15 October 2012. After weighing the evidence, on 9 January 2013 federal environment minister, Tony Burke, declared it a controlled action on the basis that it posed a risk to threatened and migratory species and the marine species which make up the ecology of the famed Kangaroo Island canyons and pool. He instigated a process which would require Bight to make the documents available and to undertake consultation. But then on 12 February this year, Bight withdrew their original referral. They made some minor amendments and submitted a new referral on 4 March, effectively circumventing the consultative process established by Minister Burke. The most significant alteration to the new referral is the window for operation, which has been moved for the period 1 March to 17 May 2014. There have been some small concessions on the use of passive acoustic monitoring for whales and increasing the marine mammal observers from two to four. But, importantly, the new referral has failed to address the potential risks and concerns previously raised by the Kangaroo Island council, dismissing them as 'insignificant'.

Bight Petroleum also claims to have consulted extensively with the community, but they have not. There has been no contact to speak of with the Kangaroo Island council or community since before the first referral was submitted in October last year. The proposal also includes technical flaws, which raise concerns. The 3,250 cubic inch array they now propose to use is not the same as the less powerful array that was previously proposed and that was modelled by Curtin University in 2012. The two arrays are different, but only the old modelling has been provided. Bight simply cannot conclude that the sound intensity will be limited to 228 decibels. Nor can they conclusively demonstrate the level of exposure that resident and migrating species will experience at different distances from the array.

The recently released Commonwealth South-west Marine Bioregional Plan identifies this precious region as a key ecological feature. The people around Australia and overseas agree. I understand that in the past two weeks Minister Burke and the department of sustainability and environment received more than 20,000 public comments on Bight's new referral. This is a significant and important signal for the government, especially given the extremely short time frame—just two weeks—and the technical complexity of this issue. The evidence of harm is strong. The community has spoken. This referral poses too many risks. The government should listen to the people and to its own bioregional plan and reject the proposal from Bight Petroleum once and for all. Ultimately, the Australian Greens join with the community in saying there should be no oil and gas exploration in this region simply because this region is too precious to lose.

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