The campaign to stop Equinor from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight is a unique – and uniquely successful – piece of activism. As well as the enormous breadth of the Great Australian Bight Alliance – across surfers, fishermen, sailors, conservationists and everyday citizens – the campaign had depth: working its way into media, local governments, boardrooms and even the courts. It is likely that the methods deployed by the Alliance will be studied and replicated in years to come. So why was it so effective? ASB spoke exclusively to two of the campaign’s prime-movers, Wilderness Society South Australia head Peter Owen, and Port Fairy surfer Ben Druitt who leads a Victorian chapter of the Fight For The Bight Alliance.
The groundswell of support behind the campaign to protect The Great Australian Bight has been recognised not once, but twice, at the Australian Surfing Awards incorporating the Hall of Fame. These Awards have been convened by Surfing Australia since 1985 to preserve and honour the high achievers amongst the Australian surfing community and culminate with the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame Inductee. In 2019, Patagonia received the ASB Greater Good Award for their ‘Big Oil Don’t Surf’ campaign which bought international focus to the issue. This year Peter Owen accepted the award on behalf of The Fight For The Bight Alliance, the organisation whose relentless efforts to bring national attention to the issue, resulted in Equinor withdrawing their plans to drill in the Bight. The campaign galvanised surfers and non-surfers alike but was most memorable for a series of paddle out protests led by surfers across the nation and in the heartland of Equinor in Norway.
It’s very hard to get Peter Owen and Ben Druitt to take any credit for the success of the Fight for the Bight movement. There’s plenty of people who should share the credit for this, Ben insists. This is a collective. It doesn’t matter whose name is on an award, says Peter. But their combined influence, arising from different communities and different passions, is undeniable.
The Fight for the Bight was a grassroots campaign against the exploitation of oil reserves in the Bight by multiple proponents, which narrowed into a struggle against one company, Norway’s government-backed giant Equinor. At stake was the opening of new industrial precinct in the Australian wilderness, significant further emissions, and the risk of a catastrophic failure of the well.
The Great Australian Bight Alliance emerged when Peter Owen learned of a discussion around BP’s exploration lease in the Great Australian Bight. “By late 2015,” he recalls, “we were pushing BP to see their modelling of a potential spill.” As they refused to release it, the Wilderness Society went and got their own model from a world-reputed firm, so there could be no allegation of bias. It cost them $45,000, a fortune for a small community group, but its importance would be undeniable. “We released it at Parliament House in Canberra with Nick Xenophon,” Peter recalls, “and it became national news, an issue for so many more people than just our group. We could see immediately that there was no way we would stop them without a massive alliance. We were going head to head with the largest industrial complex on the planet.”
Sea Shepherd came on board as allies very early on, followed by Surfrider Foundation and the Bob Brown Foundation. And then came Port Fairy’s Fight for the Bight group. The Port Fairy group was one of many, according to its organiser, Ben Druitt. “But it was primarily a South Australian issue until then: our role was to make it national by bringing it over the border into Victoria.
“The strategy was to get as many people as possible over the border involved, and to get motions through councils, condemning the proposed exploration.”
The Alliance was launched in 2016, uniting all sorts of community sectors. Ben’s own reasons for being involved say a lot about the differing motivations that coalesced under the banner: “Personally, I allay my guilt over my role in the 21st century environment by donating money regularly to the Wilderness Society. As part of their outreach, they came and saw me and asked if I’d be their guy in south-west Victoria.” As Peter Owen puts it, the Alliance managed to convince people to leave the things that they disagreed on at the door – “it transcended being a ‘greenie thing’”.
The aim was to nullify the social licence that the oil and gas companies felt they had to operate in the Bight. “This united people all along the southern coastlines,” says Peter. “Government and industry like to keep groups isolated and fighting one another: this was a locking of arms. They seriously underestimated the level of community opposition.”
The highlights of the campaign for Ben were seeing the events come together. “The vibe of the whole community coming out in support of a good cause is a great thing to be part of,” he says. “In a world where the media’s job is to find the worst possible thing about each new day, and we’re hyper-connected and you feel that everything’s falling apart every day…it’s great to feel some positivity.”
In one of the most striking images of the campaign, Ben held up a sign inside a cavernous south coast barrel. “The idea was to show the power of the coastline here, and the energy of the water,” he says, “while simultaneously broadcasting the message.” Did it work? “I don’t know maybe we need to do the same thing in even bigger waves…”
There were mass paddle-outs all along the southern coasts, covered in national, and even international media. For the National Day of Action, the Port Fairy group rigged a huge sign to the town’s historic lighthouse and held an event on the tidal rocks below it. “The night before was a great time,” Ben recalls. “We were out there as a group in the dark, trying to figure out how to rig it.”
In late February this year, Equinor announced they were pulling out of the Bight project. They cited “commercial reasons”, but the implication was clear: the level of opposition was more than they could withstand. Druitt believes the overall campaign worked “because we were able to galvanise a prolonged community voice that was laser-focused on one thing. People get spread too thin. You need a real and definitive yes-or-no proposition.”
Peter Owen sees it slightly differently. “We got in early,” he says. “Even though the campaign didn’t really hit the public sphere until the release of the film Operation Jeedara in 2016, and then the paddle-outs and events in 2018 and ’19, we’d been in there working since 2013. Unlike the Adani campaign, no-one ever had the chance to get their approvals in place. So, we were able to be pro-active, not reactive. It’s incredibly hard to unpick, once the approvals start happening.”
Both Ben and Peter think the nature of the communities is a key difference between Adani and the Fight for the Bight. “That’s a coal project in a coal community,” says Ben. “The locals are receptive to it. Whereas with the Bight, it’s a project that’s slap-bang in the middle of a community that doesn’t support it.” Peter puts the same thing in another light: “State and Federal governments are heavily influenced by the fossil-fuel lobby. But over twenty local governments supported us on this, so they filled the government vacuum. For the Adani communities and their councils, that wasn’t the case.”
We asked Ben Druitt about Equinor’s line that “it wasn’t the campaign, we left for commercial reasons.”
“They always say that,” he responds. “That’s always their line. Why couldn’t they say, ‘we listened and decided it’s not a good proposition’? They’d already said publicly that they wouldn’t do it if there was concerted community opposition – there was, and so they didn’t. So why not own that? It’s like they had to run a variant on ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists.’ I know for a fact they were rattled, and it was doing them brand damage.”
ASB asked Peter (who doesn’t surf), rather than Ben (who does), how effective surfers were as the vanguard in the movement. “The Surfrider Foundation was a founding member of the Alliance,” he answers. “They really mobilised from about 2018 onwards. Surfers are very connected to the health of the marine environment. They’re incredibly aware of the threat this project posed.” Far from being notoriously like herding cats, this was an issue that united them. And their numbers in the affected communities are huge. “It’s a great visual, the paddle-out,” he says. “Paddle-outs are spiritual as well as telegenic – they’re striking. They’re a totally appropriate gesture in this setting because they carry symbolism: they’re often used to express grief.”
Is the Fight for the Bight campaign actually over? Yes and no, according to Ben. “Yes – it’s up there with some of the great Australian environmental successes like the Franklin Dam and Sir Charles Price Point. And if you look at the current government map of the exploration leases around the Australian coast, now there’s a big hole in the Bight where Equinor and the earlier proponents had been.
“The Bight is heading towards being off-limits. But perhaps now we need to turn our concern to other parts of the Great Southern Reef, like Ningaloo Reef and the Abrolhos Islands. World Heritage listing for such places is a 3-5-year slow burnt. So, there are still vulnerabilities there that we need to watch. Maybe the next part of the campaign is to start talking about the value of the Great Southern Reef overall. Look, for instance, at southwest Victoria – we haven’t started resisting oil and gas exploration here yet, and there’s plenty of exploration permits off this coast.”
Ben Druitt insists he’s not a “career environmentalist.” Peter Owen arguably is. But Ben returns to that inner drive of his: “I do have a running anxiety which I try to allay by doing something effective – I don’t want to spend my time screaming into the wind.”
According to Ben, “It’s important that people keep thinking about these things,” he says. “The virus shows us that society can change rapidly: progress seemed unstoppable prior to COVID. These times have shown us a chink in the armour of the eternal growth model. Disruption is presented as turning your back on everything wonderful in society. But the change can be positive.”
ABOUT THE ASBMAG GREATER GOOD AWARD
The ASB Greater Good Award is Australasian Surf Business Magazines major sponsorship with Surfing Australia and is given to the person or group who in the past year has given back to Australian surfing through extraordinary results in a charitable, humanitarian, environmental, or philanthropic cause. The ASB Greater Good Award is presented annually at the Australian Surfing Awards Incorporating The Hall of Fame. Past winners include Billabong x SurfAid Schools Program (2008), Coastalwatch (2009),David Rastovich/Surfers for Cetaceans (2010), Surf Aid (2011), Barton Lynch (2012), Misfit Aid (2013), National Surfing Reserves (2014), Surfrider Foundation Australia (2015), Andrew McKinnon (2016), Walk for Waves (2017) NevHouse (2018) Patagonia (2019) Fight For The Bight Alliance (2020)