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Canavan lifts secrecy around offshore oil and gas environmental plans

The regulation of Australia’s offshore oil and gas industry will become more transparent after the resources minister, Matthew Canavan, announced that environmental plans for exploration and extraction would no longer be kept secret.

Canavan also announced the federal government would consider lifting secrecy surrounding the way the offshore oil and gas regulator conducts compliance and enforcement activities, but did not commit to doing so.

Under the existing regime, oil and gas companies must submit detailed environmental plans if they wish to extract or explore for oil under the sea.

But those plans are kept secret by both the proponent companies and the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (Nopsema).

The issue has come to a head over the past few years as companies including BP, Chevron, Santos and Statoil lined up to drill for oil in the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight.

BP was the first company to progress its plans there but it refused to release information on oil-spill modelling and detailed plans for how a spill would be dealt with.

After significant public pressure – and independent modelling commissioned by The Wilderness Society – BP eventually published a summary of some of its own modelling but then withdrew its plans to drill in the Bight.

Under federal environmental law, even straightforward projects on land – including onshore oil and gas exploration, as well as coalmining – are required to publish documents that are equivalent to an environmental plan (environmental impact assessments and environment reports).

However, in the name of reducing “green tape”, the Coalition made an exception for offshore approvals under federal laws, making assessment by Nopsema the only hurdle proponents must pass. Despite insistence that Nopsema’s process would be equivalent, Nopsema refused to publish environmental plans.

But now, following the significant scrutiny applied to plans for drilling in the Great Australian Bight, a “consultation and transparency review” conducted by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has recommended that environmental plans be published for public scrutiny. And in a statement released on Tuesday night, Canavan announced the recommendations had been approved.

“Australians can have confidence in the information used to decide where, when and how petroleum activities take place, and are able to have their say during the process, as well as knowing if an incident has occurred and what action is taken to address it,” Canavan said.

There has also been significant concern around the lack of transparency around the compliance and enforcement regime conducted by Nopsema.

When the Guardian revealed an oil well had spilled as much as 10,500 litres of oil over a period of two months, the regulator refused to immediately disclose that Woodside had been responsible for the leak, despite Woodside admitting it when asked by the Guardian.

Canavan did not commit to recommendations about improving that issue but did say he would “consider” making changes to the transparency of compliance and enforcement activities carried out by Nopsema.

The news comes as Nopsema is making changes to the way proponents submit environmental plans. The regulator is building a series of “reference cases” which proponents may use as part of their environmental plans. The regulator says that process will reduce red tape for proponents, as well as making the process more transparent.

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