Over 50,000 people paddle out on November 23, 2019 to prevent the Bight being turned into a deep water oil field. Photo Craig Parry

HOW THE BIGHT WAS WON

To be honest, all along I thought there was more chance of being called into a set wave at Blacks than there was of us winning down in the Bight. But there I was on a Tuesday morning, staring at the text message. We’d won. Equinor had pulled out of the Bight. It was just after 10am and I walked to the fridge for a beer. The surfers of Australia had just taken down a giant multinational oil company, and if that didn’t deserve a morning beer I don’t know what did.

For those late to the party, the Great Australian Bight was carved up by oil prospectors almost a decade ago. There’s nothing out there right now, just whales, fish, and the Roaring Forties. She’s pretty wild, and yet oil companies one after the other have cued up to start frontier drilling down there. One by one, however, they’ve bailed out. First BP, then Chevron. Too expensive. Too risky. Too much local opposition. That just left Equinor, a giant Norwegian company hell bent on tapping the oil reserves of the Bight. It was a high stakes battle. If Equinor drilled and found oil, then all the other companies with leases would have flocked to the area like seagulls. If Equinor could be stopped however, it would be three-and-out and almost certainly be the end of it. The Bight would stay free.

Even when the protests went national early last year – even landing back in Norway – deep down there was a part of me that knew the oil company would win. The deck was well and truly stacked in their favour. Australia has become a First World Quarry run by the Flintstones, and it’s hard to tell where the fossil fuel companies stop and the government starts. That’s not even taking licence. The Federal Resources Minister who carved up the Bight in the first place became the Chairman of the oil and gas lobby two weeks after leaving parliament. So you get my point. While we protested on beaches around the country, these guys were all meeting secretly to hash out a deal, laughing. In November, Equinor were given approval. It was done.

Even though I was resigned to us losing, I’d considered what already happened a win in itself. That tens of thousands of coastal people had turned up on beaches around the country to protest at least provided proof of life. After decades of just going surfing – bountiful surfing years where we’ve had nothing much to complain about – any kind of large scale coastal environmental movement had long faded away. And yet here they were. A new movement. New faces. The demographics had shifted. Lots of Millennials. Lots of families with young kids. They were there to save the Bight, but there was a wider point being made. We can’t simply keep digging up fossil fuels and burning them. The old ways are killing the place. There was a clear narrative around the future… a future which as they gathered had already arrived. As the National Day of Action took place last November, the coast was on fire. The North Coast paddle outs all happened under a blanket of bushfire smoke.

For me, just having this movement come to life was a win, but actually winning and booting Equinor back to Norway was hugely important to keep it going. The euphoria in the days after it was announced was really something. People lost their shit. Down in the Bight they partied for weeks. Big environmental wins are rare birds, and the young crew who’d turned out to protest around the country now felt part of something much bigger. They actually felt some small kind of control over their own destiny. Older, more cynical barnacles like myself were forced to concede that we could actually sway the system. There was hope.

The Bight campaign worked for a number of reasons, but there was little doubt that surfers made the difference. They added huge cultural cachet. Decades ago when surfers used to fight sand mining or sewerage outfalls, they were a subculture and easily dismissed as ferals and chucked in the paddy wagon. Today they can’t be dismissed. You had Mick Fanning and Steph Gilmore turn up to paddle-outs, but more than the high profile surf crew, the changing demographic of surfers was really noticeable. Half the crowds at the paddle outs were young families. The optic of families gathering on the beach to take a stand was powerful. Conservative forces were doing their best to dismiss the protests of surfers, to dismiss the kids, but what they couldn’t dismiss was the Australian way of life. The beach is the cornerstone of Australia’s national identity. Scott Morrison tried to flog it to the world in his previous job at Tourism Australia. Now the beach was asking where the hell he was. Culturally, the coast has real power but these days it also has growing political clout. Almost all of Australia’s population lives within 50km of the coast, and importantly, the money has all drifted there. Retired Boomers in three million dollar beach houses and surfing scumbags might make strange allies, but both of them have an interest in saving the coast.

The challenge now is to keep it all going. This hasn’t been made easy of course by the arrival of a global pandemic and the attendant economic shitshow. Everything on the other side of this will change. The economy will be a dumpster fire and you know already the interests of the economy will trump the interests of the environment, even more than it did before. All the ground made in the Bight against fossil fuel development, all the ground made for meaningful action on climate change… that ground will need to be made back again when this all clears. They’ll be back, maybe not for the Bight but certainly for other places all around the Australian coast.

And when they do, we’ll be waiting.

 

 

Sean Doherty