A cluster of greenhouse gas companies is seeking to rapidly expand the extraction of fossil fuels throughout Bass Strait, supported by a government keen to rubber-stamp their plans—all while touting the slogan ‘A Better Future’. This scramble for fossil fuels comes at a time in which greenhouse gas emissions have created frightfully unstable weather patterns around the world: unprecedentedly low Antarctic sea ice; major flooding in Norway and India; wildfires still smoking in Hawaii; and Typhoon Lan, which has just make landfall in Japan. No more endlessly deferred future tense: the disaster is here now and sure to get worse.
The latest IPCC report makes it very clear that no new fossil fuel projects can be opened if we are to avoid the worst of catastrophic global heating. Likewise, the International Energy Agency is plain in its report Net Zero by 2050 that there is to be ‘no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects’. To these very clear directives, backed by inherently conservative scientific consensus, the Australian government nods along emptily, committing to develop a 2050 Net Zero plan while at the same time actively undermining the very possibility of achieving it. After taking power in the ‘climate election’, the incoming Labor government increased the amount of public money going to support fossil fuel extraction, giving out a record-breaking $57 billion dollars in 2022–23. For comparison, the Fuel Tax Credit Scheme part of this alone amounts to $7.8 billion—more than the budget for the entire Australian Army.
Offshore extraction of fossil fuels in Bass Strait has a long history, going back to the first oil rig set up by Esso and BHP in 1965. Today, ExxonMobil proudly notes that its twenty-three offshore platforms in Victorian waters have produced ‘more than four billion barrels of crude oil and around eight trillion cubic feet of gas’. Many more multinational corporations are itching to expand offshore extraction. There is a complex web of oil drilling and geoscience exploration multinational companies involved, including TGS and SLB’s plan to map 7.7 million hectares in Bass Strait, as well as further exploration planned by Norwegian-based Shearwater GeoServices and French-owned CGG. Likewise, existing extractors are looking to expand their operations, including ConocoPhillips and Cooper Energy. And Beach Energy its plotting to further integrate its aptly named ‘Thylacine’ oil wells, a name that perhaps suggests it is embracing the Sixth Great Extinction.
As the various energy extraction and geophysics companies in the above suggest, this isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. Offshore Magazineproudly states that the future of seismic exploration for offshore fossil fuels is bright, with the sector expected to expand by 14 per cent in 2023 alone. Major offshore explorations are underway in Argentina, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Colombia, Greece, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. This intensification of interest in offshore mining is driven in part by inflated profits, disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine and a powerful industry keen to defend—and extend—its position. The drive offshore is also being pushed by increasing scarcity, as many of the ‘conventional’ sources of fossil fuel are already over-exploited, forcing mining companies to go to increasing lengths to find ‘unconventional’ deposits, which often require high-technology to be able to tap. This is where seismic exploration comes in—an abstract techno-fix that leads to stranger and more dangerous territory, increasingly undermining the web of life and the possibility of a meaningful lifeworld. As such, it is worth a closer look at the technology itself.
Before an offshore oil or gas well can be sunk, the area needs to be mapped, and the most accurate way to do that today is via a process called ‘seismic exploration’. At sea, this involves a scientific ship sailing slowly back and forth across the ‘acquisition area’—the aggressive terminology used for the place being mapped—while dragging pneumatic guns and microphones behind the ship on a line 10 kilometres long. The trolled air-guns fire regular sound blasts into the water, and the microphones record the echoing sound bouncing back from the seafloor, and the sub-seafloor.
To get the sound into the sub-seafloor, where oil and gas may be found, the blast has to be extremely loud. In fact, at an unimaginable 240 decibels, they are among the loudest sounds humans can produce—louder than the sound produced by the explosion of an atomic bomb. What’s more, to map the acquisition area requires hundreds of thousands of blasts, with the pneumatic gun firing every ten seconds, 24 hours a day, for months on end.
To transform the recording of the underwater echoes into a map of the seafloor is an incredibly complicated process, requiring nothing less than purpose-built supercomputers to crunch the data. For example, ConocoPhillips, the US-based multinational oil company, has one of the world’s top supercomputers, a 1000 m2 machine that sits inside a larger data facility in Huston, Texas. The vast majority of its immense processing power is given over to crunching seismic exploration data into maps. As the company puts it, ‘having a supercomputer is vital to ConocoPhillips’ success; it’s the ultimate E&P tool’. E&P, I learned, is oil and gas industry jargon for ‘Exploration and Production’.
It is worth emphasising the incredibly complicated nature of these operations, for this showcases the cybernetic reorganisation of capitalism, and how techno-scientific processes are absolutely central to how the extraction industry works today. This complicates simple calls to ‘follow the science’ with respect to climate change. Fossil fuel companies are ‘following the science’—indeed, they are using the most advanced techno-science available, and using it to extract even more fossil fuels. In ConocoPhillips’s case, this has been extremely successful by its own standards, with the company becoming the largest fracker of coalseam gas in Australia and taking home $5.7 billion from its operations here in 2020–21—while paying zero tax. With a market capitalisation of US $138 billion, it has been lavishly rewarded by major investors.
Such political economic criticism can neatly articulate part of the problem, but the situation goes deeper than corporations pumping carbon and not paying tax. To get to that, we need to consider the technology of seismic exploration functions and the acoustic properties of water, for sound moves very differently through water than it does through air. It travels much faster—moving at 1500 metres per second as opposed to 340—and can travel much further; whales are known to communicate with each other across thousands of kilometres of ocean. This touches on how cetaceans—dolphins and whales—use sound in very distinct and complex ways, including to ‘see’ and feel. People can hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 hertz (Hz); dogs can hear up to 44Hz. Bottlenose dolphins, common in the ‘acquisition area’ of Bass Strait, can hear up to 160,000 Hz. These dolphins use their ultra-precise hearing to locate fish, and can recognise the exact size of a fish based on the sound bouncing back from its swim bladder. In addition to finding food, cetaceans also use sound to produce echo-maps of the ocean, issuing calls and listening to the echoes bouncing back from ocean shelves, coastlines, reefs and so on. Having hundreds of thousands of nuclear-bomb-volume blasts ripping through their habitat is surely going to affect their extremely delicate senses in ways we cannot understand, devastating their phenomenological worlds.
One marine biologist turned whistleblower has come out to described her time aboard a seismic exploration vessel. She was tasked with keeping an eye out for whales, as the blasting would only pause, briefly, if the crew had direct visual confirmation of specific types of whales. This extraordinarily inadequate measure is staggering, not only because the pneumatic guns were being dragged 10 kilometres behind the ship—in other words, near or beyond the horizon—but also because the blasts continued all night while no marine fauna observer was on duty. Though I suppose this is slightly better than forcing a marine biologists to stay up all night listening to the distant explosions while looking through binoculars into the dark.
Beside the understandable focus on charismatic cetaceans, attention need also be paid to the other inhabitants of the already overfished, acidifying ocean. What happens when microorganisms are hit with a 250 Db decibel sound wave? The short answer is, nobody knows; it hasn’t been adequately studied. And beyond any one creature in isolation, what happens to an ecosystem when the foundation of the web of life have been seismically blasted? It seems fair to assume that it almost certainly isn’t good.
And it’s worth recalling again that the purpose of the blasting is to locate new offshore fossil fuel reserves in order to pump more greenhouse gases into the already unstable atmosphere. Despite what the careful public relations campaigns of fossil fuel companies suggest, ‘natural gas’ is just as environmentally ruinous to burn as coal once its methane emissions are included in the analysis. And again, as the International Energy Agency notes, it should play no role in the urgent transition to a net zero future.
Yet further gas extraction is being embraced by centrist governments—Labor in Australia, Labour in Norway, Lula’s Brazil, Biden’s USA and others. In some respects, these ‘social democratic’ parties are perhaps even more dangerous than the old right-wing parties that are unashamedly in the pockets of the fossil fuel companies. These parties position themselves as smooth and effective managers of planetary destruction, justifying their stance in the name of ‘moderation’ and more thorough greenwashing. The old, hardcore climate denialists are a weaker foe than then green capitalism. And herein lies a deeper problem: anyone committed to a society dedicated to endless growth is necessarily pushed towards increasingly abstract techno-fixes to tap increasingly scarce energy requirements. A conservative, social democrat, or socialist government will encounter the same push towards instrumentalistion if they do not question the growth imperative.
For its part, the Australian government provides no hope that it can meaningfully mitigate the situation. For one, the government claims that it is keen to listen to the ‘voices’ of Aboriginal custodians, yet it allows its regulators to press on with allowing seismic blasting that is explicitly against the Citizens’ Protection Declaration by the Southern Ocean Protection Embassy Collective, an organisation led by Gunditjmara Whale Dreaming Holders. After the dubious waves of privatisation in the 90s, power shifted from state-based to national regulators who seem to show no interest in managing demand for gas. The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, known by the appropriately silly acronym NOPSEMA, does not inspire hope that it is making any effort to avoid catastrophic global heating. Its website’s entries on ‘seismic exploration’ are something of a bad taste joke: under the heading ‘Seismic exploration is undertaken for a range of different purposes’, it puts the following two dot points right next to each other:
Marine seismic surveys are commonly used around the world:
- to identify potential oil and gas reservoirs below the seafloor
- to identify reservoirs suitable for storing waste carbon dioxide to prevent it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to climate change
In case this wasn’t clear enough, the site restates the same idea a few short paragraphs later:
By analysing the soundwaves collected across an acquisition area, geophysicists and geologists are able to build a picture of sub-seabed geological layers, and more accurately define areas that may:
- hold oil and gas deposits
- be suitable for storing waste carbon dioxide
It seems almost to obvious to state, but the supposed need to store carbon dioxide in this fantasy way wouldn’t be there if we didn’t dig it up and burn it in the first place. Indeed, a discerning reader will note that while these two dot points sit casually side by side in the text, they actually exist in different realities. The first is very real and very dangerous. The second is, at best, a desperate science-fiction fantasy produced by the fossil fuel industry in an attempt to imagine a non-existent technology that can save the business-as-usual world. More concisely, it is bullshit. The regulators seems to be able to function with levels of cynicism high enough to kill a whale. And these are the words of the regulatory agency in charge of overseeing the expansion of this dangerous sector and ‘managing the environment’. It concisely shows just how much trouble we are in and how desperately we need to radically reorient ourselves away from the blasted world of ‘business as usual’.
Seismic exploration is a telling manifestation of the cybernetic reorganisation of global capitalism, containing within it the central contradiction that has been with us since the first nuclear explosions opened the new epoch: the combination of the highly rational and the entirely mad. As a practice, seismic exploration is excruciatingly rationalised, calculated on supercomputers and altogether very abstract, yet its blasting—an atomic bomb of sound every ten seconds—is bewilderingly belligerent to oceanic ecosystems, and its goal of expanding the frontier of fossil fuel extraction at the time of increasingly acute climate crisis is nothing short of demented.
David Ritter, Jun 2022
At a time when the International Energy Agency (IEA) has called for a total moratorium on opening any new coal, oil or gas projects to avoid climate disaster, Woodside is hell-bent on locking in increasing greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.