17/10/2016 12:04 PM AEDT | Updated 17/10/2016 12:04 PM AEDT

Our Race For Oil Will Come Back To Bight Us

The fossil fuel industry is a monster with many heads.

© Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace
The BP leased oil platform exploded April 20 and sank after burning, leaking an estimate of more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil per day from the broken pipeline into the sea.

If BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was an unspeakable tragedy, then the company's failed plans to drill the Great Australian Bight have been a farce all along.

Contemplating drilling for oil at ocean depths even deeper than the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico was a fool's mission from the outset. What followed was an unfolding story of faulty equipment, bungled approval applications and inadequate safety plans. All that culminated in last week's abrupt announcement that -- despite having a billion-dollar drill rig on the way to Australia -- BP is now quitting all plans to drill in the Bight.

According to BP's own announcement, the decision isn't a change of heart about the viability of the Bight -- they still think there's oil down there -- but the company's own belated strategic assessment that it makes no sense to try and get the stuff out.

BP's U-turn follows the release of its own spill modelling. This showed that an incident could result in oil slicks reaching the coasts of South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia and even NSW; and that there would be no way to meaningfully respond to such a catastrophe.

At last year's Annual General Meeting in London, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was reported as saying that "to run Bight or not run Bight is not a decision for BP, it is a ­decision for Australia". Since then, many Australians have given Mr Svanberg a pretty clear indication of our feelings on the subject.

Key local councils, such as Victor Harbor and Kangaroo Island, have taken a clear stand against drilling in the Bight. Indigenous traditional owners have expressed their opposition. The oyster industry doesn't want oil drilling threatening livelihoods. Federal Member of Parliament Rebekha Sharkie was swept to victory in Mayo for the Nick Xenophon Team on a platform that included opposition to oil drilling in the Bight. And all those who love and care about the people, the magnificent wildlife and clean, fresh waters of the Southern Ocean have been united in their condemnation of BP's plans.

Jaimen Hudson/Greenpeace
Whales in the Southern Ocean off the Great Australian Bight.

There is no question that, in the great struggle of people versus oil, this is an unequivocal victory for the people.

Unfortunately, Federal Resources Minister Senator Matt Canavan does not see things the same way. On radio this week, Senator Canavan dismissed those who opposed BP's drilling -- whether they care about local jobs and communities, or the Bight's whales and other magnificent wildlife, or are worried about global warming -- as "the ugly side of green activism".

Rather than having ministers denigrate those Australians who don't want to see our southern coast ruined, the Federal Government should seize the momentum created by BP's withdrawal to protect the Bight from oil and gas permanently. This is crucial, because the fossil fuel industry is a monster with many heads. US oil giant Chevron is the next multinational in line with active plans to drill the Bight.

The obstacles facing Chevron and others with greedy eyes on the Bight are the same as those that caused BP to pull out. Community opposition to drilling oil out of the deep, wild waters of the Bight will only grow stronger. There is nothing to say that a spill from Chevron would be any less disastrous than the appalling impact shown by BP's modelling. The Hollywood blockbuster Deepwater Horizon, released in Australia just a week ago, provided a visceral reminder that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico could happen here too.

Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace
Oil on the sea surface following the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Above all, the world cannot afford to open up new fossil fuel extraction if we are to keep to the agreed international target of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. Ratifications of the Paris Climate Change agreement signify that, at the eleventh hour, governments are getting serious about acting on climate change. With BP backing off, both southern Australia and the world's climate have dodged a bullet.

Rather than supporting dangerous oil exploration, the Federal Government should get behind South Australia's natural assets and look for ways to build on the state's reputation as an emerging leader, not only in renewable energy and innovation, but in other areas of advantage including as a leader in clean and healthy produce.

BP's retreat from the Bight is a watershed moment for the power and determination of the Australian people and a great sign of hope that the age of fossil fuels is drawing to a close.

Jaimen Hudson/Greenpeace