Despite the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) ship being capable of operating for 300 days out of every 365, and the research agency’s claim that this time could be allocated four times over with requests from institutions, Investigator has been at anchor in Hobart since early July. The Australian government are only prepared to finance operations for 180 days per year.
The gap is to be filled, at least in part, by commercial arrangements with international oil and gas exploration and production companies BP and Chevron. Both are looking to conduct exploration activities in the Great Australian Bight (GAB), a deepwater frontier basin roughly 300 km west of Port Lincoln, off the coast of southern Australia.
Chevron Australia acquired two deepwater exploration permits (EPP44 and EPP45) in the GAB back in October 2013. On 22 October this year, they will commence an integrated field research program targeting unexplored deepwater regions in partnership with CSIRO, collecting sea floor core and rock samples and monitoring marine life.
“The program will provide a better understanding of the [Ceduna] Basin’s geology and petroleum prospectivity, to reduce exploration risks and costs,” a statement from the Australian government said. “It will also improve understanding of the ecology and provide baseline data to inform environmental assessments.”
In December, BP will take over the charter for studies on marine ecosystems. BP is proposing to drill four exploration wells in Commonwealth waters in the GAB, where it is licensed on four permit areas (EPP37-EPP40). Time on the Investigator will be the latest stage in a AUS$20m research programme with collaborators from CSIRO, the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), the University of Adelaide, and Flinders University.
“The Science Program will be one of only a few whole-of-ecosystem studies undertaken in Australia,” Dr David Smith of CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship has said. “It will focus on collating information about the marine resources of the Great Australian Bight and providing vital knowledge to inform future decisions for sustainable development in the region.”
While high profile Australian Greens and other environmental campaign bodies have spoken out against hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation of the Bight, CSIRO director of strategy Toni Moate has insisted that the research programmes promote the country’s scientific expertise and capability as well as being in the national interest.
“We do a lot of great research and development [in Australia], a lot of great science,” said recently inaugurated Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his first conference with the Australian press on 20 September. “One of the things we do not do well at all is the collaboration between primary research, typically in universities, and business. We’re actually the second worst in the OECD, so it is a very important priority to make a change to that.”