Study raises questions about oil exploration off Newcastle coast

From above: Satellite image of the area (in white) of the NSW east coast where seismic testing is proposed. Picture: National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority
From above: Satellite image of the area (in white) of the NSW east coast where seismic testing is proposed. Picture: National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority

A new study has raised “serious questions” about the potential impact of oil exploration off the coast of Newcastle on whale movements, the NSW Greens say. 

But the company that wants to conduct seismic testing – by shooting acoustic pulses into the ocean floor to look for oil – remains adamant that its plan won’t impact the creatures beyond acceptable levels.

The University of Queensland study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in August, found that humpback whales were likely to move away from the source of noise, even during a “ramp-up” period.

It also found “the majority of groups appeared to avoid the source vessel at distances greater than the radius of most mitigation zones”.

Asset Energy is preparing its amended environmental plan for the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority ahead of an October 15 deadline.

The company wants to survey a 12 square kilometre patch just south of Newcastle early next year.

It was sent back to the drawing board earlier this year after NOPSEMA was “not reasonably satisfied that the environment plan meets the criteria” of regulations.

Asset Energy director Toby Foster said there weren’t any “material changes” in the company’s modified environment plan, but “more extensive acoustic modelling” was being conducted.

“The study by University of Queensland doesn’t raise any concerns,” he said.

“It does demonstrate to us that our intended whale mitigation procedures are appropriate and that any impact on these creatures will be within acceptability levels.”

But NSW Greens marine and fisheries spokesman Justin Field said the study showed that the state government should reject an exploration license off the coast of Newcastle.

“This new scientific study raises serious questions about the safety of seismic guns on the hearing and navigation of migrating whales,” he said. “Seismic testing in the waters off Newcastle poses an unacceptable risk for ocean habitat, marine wildlife including migrating whales, and productive local fishing grounds.”

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