Lessons learned from environmental enforcement action

Article published in the Regulator | Issue 2: 2017

At the 2017 Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association conference and exhibition, NOPSEMA participated in a plenary discussion on Addressing trust challenges and regulatory uncertainty, to share lessons learned from a recent environmental enforcement action, along  with the titleholder Origin Energy Resources Limited (Origin).

The environmental enforcement action centred on Origin’s Crowes Foot seismic survey, which was undertaken in November 2016 offshore of Portland, Victoria in the Otway basin. An accepted environment plan was in place well ahead of the survey, but before the survey commenced, new scientific research on the effects of seismic noise on rock lobsters was released and raised concerns among the local fishing industry.

NOPSEMA issued an environmental enforcement action to Origin because it failed to manage a change in the known impacts of their survey by not adequately taking into account the new research. As a result, Origin was required to delay their survey to apply more rigorous control measures at short notice.

Origin’s CEO, David Baldwin, shared his observations on the emphasis a titleholder may place on technical aspects of petroleum projects, particularly at critical times before start-up, which could come at the expense of stakeholder engagement and adequate environmental management. He also discussed an organisation’s internal focus on data that supports its existing beliefs (confirmation bias), which could hamper the organisation’s ability to recognise change and apply additional resources to respond.

NOPSEMA’s CEO, Stuart Smith, acknowledged that the expectations of the regulator must be communicated more clearly and directly; not only in situations where there are greater environmental risks—which is usually the trigger—but also in situations where time is of the essence or there are elevated stakeholder concerns. Mr Smith also recognised the benefits of regulators highlighting more serious advice and feedback to titleholders, so that work can be focused on the areas of greatest concern and benefit. He stated that NOPSEMA should escalate regulatory compliance matters with titleholders earlier in the process, so that the titleholder’s upper management may drive improvements.