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Every part of Kangaroo Island is too precious to lose

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 11 Dec 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:40):  This evening I rise to speak for a small community in my electorate of South Australia who have a huge battle on their hands. It is a battle which not only threatens one of the most pristine natural environments in my state but also threatens the economy and the very social fabric of a community that has been called the tourism jewel in South Australia's crown.

I speak of Kangaroo Island. It is a majestic place off the coast of South Australia, and it is home to 4,600 islanders. It is a beautiful place, it brims with natural wonder, and it is a place that these people call home. It is a place where young people go to school and retirees settle away from the busy rush of the city. It is a place where people go to get away.

 

The Kangaroo Island community now face a battle that is not new or rare—in fact, it is one that is all too common. They face a battle with a Canadian oil company called Bight Petroleum. The company currently has two leases in the Commonwealth waters off the Kangaroo Island coast and a referral before the government to conduct seismic testing in the two permit zones. The permits directly overlap a crucial biodiversity hotspot which is created by the Kangaroo Island Pool, Kangaroo Island Canyons and the Eyre Peninsula Upwellings.

The Kangaroo Island Canyons are a small group of narrow, steep-sided canyons that, together with the Kangaroo Island Pool, the seasonal Eyre Peninsula Upwelling and the prevailing winds along the Great Australian Bight, create unique conditions that support the region's productivity and marine life communities to the west of Kangaroo Island. The region hosts aggregations of krill, small pelagic fish and squid which attract marine mammals, sharks, predatory fish and seabirds. There is no doubt about the ecological significance of the Kangaroo Island Canyons and Pool and their crucial part in the island's fishing industry.

The science is also clear that seismic testing poses a significant threat to marine life in the area. During seismic surveys, a low-frequency, high-intensity sound pulse is emitted every few seconds by an array of guns, which operate 24 hours a day over a period of months. The sound pulses are 100,000 times louder than a jet engine. Imagine, if you can, having a jackhammer going in your kitchen 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. Seismic testing has been shown to change the breeding, feeding and migratory patterns of whales. That is of particular concern in this area because it is a critical feeding area for blue, sperm, beaked and fin whales.

Seismic testing is just the beginning. It is a precursor to drilling for oil and gas, which brings with it a plethora of risks—most significantly, of course, the risk of an oil spill. The devastating 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill happened while the Deepwater Horizon rig was also drilling an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico. The damage wreaked by that oil spill is impossible to measure.

It is considered to be the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, resulting in an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil gushing into the ocean. It claimed 11 human lives and had immeasurably negative implications for the marine environment—as well as surrounding wildlife habitats and the fishing and tourism industries. Even a comparably small oil spill off the Kangaroo Island coast could ravage this unique marine environment. And yet it is important to understand that this battle is not only for the environment; it is actually for the people who call Kangaroo Island home. It is a battle for a community who want their precious island protected—from the many threats posed by oil and gas exploration, threats that could unravel the island's economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism, agriculture and fishing.

Kangaroo Island attracts around 200,000 visitors each year. In 2011-2012, 40,000 of these visitors were international tourists. Kangaroo Island's identity as a clean, green destination is a core part of the island's economy, as well as the broader South Australian and a rich history. It is a place that is treasured by South Australians and locals alike and, increasingly, international visitors. It is a place known across the world for its iconic destinations: Seal Bay, the Remarkable Rocks and Little Sahara. Its waters are home to Australian sea lions, New Zealand and Australian fur seals, nationally threatened seabirds, the Great White Shark, school shark and the endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna. It is a place that is too precious to lose.

The battle to protect Kangaroo Island from oil and gas exploration is an ongoing one. The former environment minister, Tony Burke, declared Bight Petroleum's referral a 'controlled action' under federal environment protection legislation before requesting they provide further information regarding alternative survey options—sound exposure modelling and management and mitigation measures. The environment department has previously advised the proposed survey is likely to have a significant impact on matters protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 including: threatened species and communities, migratory species and a Commonwealth marine area. Bight Petroleum has supplied the department with further information and now the public has a chance to make submissions to Bight Petroleum about their concerns

Let me make it clear: the Kangaroo Island community has already vigorously responded to Bight Petroleum's referral during a previous public consultation and an earlier referral. And the Kangaroo Island Council has previously requested that the referral process be transparent, taking into account the community's grave concerns for the island's tourism, fishing and environmental communities. Yet Bight Petroleum's engagement with these concerns, and those who have expressed them, has been lacking. Just last week, an article in the local newspaper, The Islander, quoted Kangaroo Island Council Mayor Jayne Bates as saying:

"We have asked Bight Petroleum to consult with us appropriately, and so far it appears they have little regard for our concerns ... we see the island bearing all of the risk with absolutely no benefit whatsoever and thus, until we see that mandated steps are in place to mitigate each risk identified, we cannot be satisfied. If things go wrong, the impact to our community—in economic and social terms—will be massive ...

The Kangaroo Island community has developed a strong consensus of concern about this proposal. And yet Bight Petroleum have not responded adequately to their concerns. It seems only just that those who have built their lives, homes, families and businesses on Kangaroo Island should have their concerns heard. And so tonight I have spoken for this small community who wholeheartedly love their island.

It is a community who rely on the natural environment to provide employment through fishing, agriculture and tourism. It is a community who have the right to be concerned that damage to their island's unique marine environment would likely cause broader social and economic impacts. I have expressed their concerns, which I share, in the hope that those who have the power to change this situation will listen and then act in accordance with what they have heard. There is a Native American proverb that many of us are familiar with. It says:

When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realise—too late—that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can't eat money.

That saying undoubtedly challenges us all. And I think it is particularly poignant for Kangaroo Island. Will it be only when we have degraded the natural assets of this community—beyond repair—that we will become fully aware of its value? The opportunity to protect this place is now. Kangaroo Island's natural wonders—Seal Bay, the Remarkable Rocks and Little Sahara—will be marvelled at for generations to come. Let us protect the pristine waters, the unique marine life and the white sandy beaches. Let us ensure that the Kangaroo Island community remains vibrant and strong, the economy thriving as a result of tourism, fishing and agriculture. Let us acknowledge that this is no place for oil and gas. Because it is all—every part of it—too precious to lose.

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