Equinor could use toxic oil dispersants west of Kangaroo Island: Greenpeace

C130 plane spraying dispersant over the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP leased oil platform exploded on April 20 and sank after burning, leaking an estimate of more than 210,000 gallons of crude oil per day from the broken pipeline to the sea. Photo Daniel Beltra

C130 plane spraying dispersant over the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP leased oil platform exploded on April 20 and sank after burning, leaking an estimate of more than 210,000 gallons of crude oil per day from the broken pipeline to the sea. Photo Daniel Beltra

Greenpeace is alleging toxic oil dispersants could be used in the Great Australian Bight west of Kangaroo Island if oil drilling is approved next week.

Regulators will bend the rules to allow Equinor to respond to an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight by deploying a banned chemical cocktail that doesn't work and is toxic to humans and marine life, according to a new report by Professor Jodie Rummer and Greenpeace.

Equinor's plans, due to be ruled on by the regulator NOPSEMA next week, include the use of Corexit 9500, which was widely used in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Greenpeace says.

Corexit 9500 was banned in Australia in 2012, after evidence came to light of its toxic effects on response workers and the environment, Greenpeace says.

"An oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would be apocalyptic for the region's marine life - from endangered whales to the commercial species that underpin South Australia's thriving seafood industry, and the plankton that props up the entire food chain", Dr Rummer said at the launch of The Dispersant Delusion: Equinor's plan to poison the Great Australian Bight with banned toxic chemicals.

"It's hard to imagine that anything could be worse for the Bight than an oil spill but Equinor's use of dispersants will make a terrible situation devastating.

"Studies from the Deepwater Horizon spill show that dispersants mixed with oil are often more toxic to marine life than oil alone.

"Equinor's proposed solution will exacerbate the problem by exposing marine life to chemicals whose toxicity is so well-established it has led to their ban."

Equinor responds

Jone Stangeland, Equinor's country manager for Australia, said for Equinor, any oil spill was unacceptable.

"Our priority is preventing any well control incidents through careful planning, but we must be fully prepared to respond to any situation. If we believed there was any chance that an oil spill could happen, we would not go ahead with this project," Mr Stangeland said.

"All oil and gas companies operating in Australia are required to use dispersants, which are pre-approved by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and selected from the Oil Spill Control Agent (OSCA) Register.

"The Australian Maritime Safety Authority Efficacy Test Protocol for the Register (Australian Maritime Safety Authority 2012) lists the toxicity testing requirements that ensure products meet the requirements of acceptable practice for the National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies (the National Plan), and products with a high acute toxicity or containing prohibited substances are not permitted.

"As part of our Environment Plan (EP), Equinor has stated that in the unlikely event of an oil spill where dispersants are required, it will select dispersants accepted on the OSCA Register. To ensure there is a plan for the cases where there are shortfalls in the supply chain, other dispersants with transitional acceptance could be considered. Any decision to use transitionally approved dispersants will be made in conjunction with government agency advisors (e.g. AMSA, NOPSEMA), who will be invited to participate in the Incident Management Team in the unlikely event of an oil spill.

"Dispersant application is a globally recognised and practiced response technique, recognised under the National Plan, and is considered the primary and most effective spill mitigation action in the event of a loss of well control leading to a Level 3 oil spill.

"The process to implement and assess the use of dispersants has been set out in our Oil Pollution Emergency Plan (OPEP), which adheres to the National Plan and is submitted to NOPSEMA for assessment and acceptance before drilling can commence."

Mr Stangeland said more information was contained in Section 8 of Equinor's Environment Plan here and fact sheet on dispersants here.

Experts concerned

Dr David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said dispersants also posed a health risk to workers who would be mobilised to respond to a spill in the Bight.

"It's beyond doubt that an oil spill in the Great Australian Bight would be an environmental catastrophe but what this report shows is that it would also be a public health crisis for workers exposed to dispersants and for many in the community," he said.

"Numerous studies from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have shown that workers exposed to dispersants like Corexit suffered impacts ranging from nausea to memory loss, nervous system damage, weakness and irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. It is deeply concerning that Equinor has ignored these studies.

"Equinor and the Government have a duty to inform the public of these potential health impacts."

As part of the approval process to drill for offshore oil, Equinor is required to submit an environment plan that lays out its emergency response plan in the case of an oil spill, Greenpeace says.

Central to Equinor's plan is the use of large quantities of dispersants such as Corexit, which is a cocktail of toxic chemicals that aims to break up an oil slick into small droplets and prevent it from reaching shores, Greenpeace says.

"Dispersants are little more than marketing tools that oil companies use to give a false impression that they are somehow reversing the environmental damage their oil spills have caused, which is simply impossible," said Greenpeace Australia Pacific Head of Research and Investigations, Dr Nikola Casule.

"BP used almost seven million litres of Corexit in the Deepwater Horizon disaster with possibly no mitigating effect on the spread of the oil spill yet potentially resulting in greater damage to the environment than would have occurred if they had done nothing at all.. Corexit was put to the test in real-world conditions and failed spectacularly," Dr Casule said.

Greenpeace says, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) no longer lists Corexit 9500 or Ardrox 6120 as acceptable chemical dispersants for procurement in Australia, due to concerns about their safety and ecotoxicity.

Instead, Greenpeace says AMSA classifies these dispersants as having only 'transitional acceptance' based on their having acquired an earlier, less stringent approval via an assessment process completed in 2012.

However, Greenpeace says this loophole allows Equinor to use the Corexit 9500 that remains in AMSA stockpiles in the case of an oil spill in the Bight, despite the fact that AMSA no longer considers it safe enough to pass its most recent standards.

Dispersant use for oil spill response is banned outright in Sweden, while Corexit has been banned for coastal use in the UK since 1998 due to its damaging effects on marine life, Greenpeace says.