Stab Magazine | Now...This: Sean Doherty On Oil Drilling In The Bight, Climate Activism, And Other Less Pressing Issues
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Now…This: Sean Doherty On Oil Drilling In The Bight, Climate Activism, And Other Less Pressing Issues

A week after tens of thousands of Australians took to the coast to protest oil drilling proposals in The Bight, we spoke to one of the most influential voices in Australia’s activist movement. 

style // Dec 1, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 9 minutes

As far as reporting about surfing goes, Sean Doherty is one of the individuals who could rightfully refer to himself as a journalist. With an archive of in-depth interviews, investigative articles, and to this day, the most informative comp wraps (sorry Mikey C), today, Sean spends a large proportion of his time fighting fossil fuel corporations such as Norway’s Equinor. 

Last Saturday, over 50 individual paddle outs were held around Australia to oppose Equinor’s plans to drill in The Great Australian Bight. Plans which have been consistently delayed due to ongoing assessments by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA); a group which rarely denies applicants, but has asked Equinor for multiple revisions to their plans over the last few years.

Currently, Sean and likeminded people opposed to drilling in The Bight (which according to a recent poll by The Australia Institute is the majority of Australians) are hoping Equinor withdraw their plans, similar to what BP and Chevron have done in the years prior. 

Since Sean has been one of the most prominent individuals fighting for The Bight and other environmental causes in Australia – rallying in thousands of professional and everyday surfers in the process – we threw him a line for this week’s Now…This.

While Sean tapped away finishing two books, the next issue of Surfing World, and continues to report on the World Tour from down in Torquay, we got on the blower and spoke about everything from The Bight to his favourite music at the moment. That interview, in a mostly unedited format, can be read below. 

For a broad, yet thoroughly informative, update on Equinor’s plans to drill in The Bight, read The Saturday Paper’s article (here) featuring quotes from Sean on the issue. 

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A snapshot of Bondi’s paddle out crew last Saturday.

Photography

Tim Swallow

Stab: Hey Sean, you have to be impressed with the turnouts around the country last week.

Sean Doherty: It was very encouraging to see, for sure. I think there was officially 56 [paddle outs] and then a few spontaneous ones popped up throughout the day. It was epic. 

I read the piece in The Saturday Paper yesterday on this. It’s good to see print media – although they’re not really mainstream – picking up and giving this issue proper coverage.

It’s a hard issue to gain traction within the mainstream media, largely because people aren’t that aware of The Bight and its importance. Well none of the mainstream media and their audiences care about it anyway. It’s so remote and tapping into an East Coast, non-surfing consciousness is hard. Surfers understand it, but getting people beyond them to care is pretty tough.

In saying that, [the paddle outs] last Saturday had all the big news coverage teams there: Seven, Nine, Ten, ABC, and SBS were all there in some capacity. It’s getting too big for Equinor to ignore. 

The most important part though is that it got picked up by the media in Norway. That’s way more important than getting coverage out here.

Equinor is a partially state-owned company right?

Yeah, two-thirds is state owned. A lot of people in Norway are starting to watch what they’re up to, so that’s part of the reason they’re down here in Australia. It’s really easy for the people of Norway to ignore what’s happening when it’s so far removed [note: Norway likes to promote itself as a nation adopting renewables at a progressive pace]. 

Do you think we have a greater chance of halting Equinor’s plans in Norway rather than through the governmental processes here in Australia?

100 percent. We’ve realised that for a long time, especially since the Liberals got back in. Matt Canavan [a Liberal Party senate member] would row a dingy out there and try to drill it himself if he had half a fucking chance. That’s the kind of ideological goons we’re up against.

His solution to everything is to dig a hole, drill a hole, and in the process he’ll end up putting Australia in a hole. There’s no sense in trying to sway people of that mindset, you just have to try and bring the masses along with you. In this particular case, with Equinor being state owned, we’re trying to let the Norwegian people see what is really going on down here.

Do you think the chance of stopping things by protest is realistic? 

The longer we can draw this out the better our chances. All up I think there’s 12 companies looking to drill [in The Bight], but Equinor is the only one with a plan ready to implement right now. On Friday though, one of the other companies [Karoon Gas] pulled out of their exploration permit which was a step in the right direction. 

That’s another domino that has fallen, but Equinor is a big one, and if we can get them to pull out and head back to Norway then that will be massive. Then we would have had three of the major companies [BP, Chevron, and Equinor] pull out after realising that the plans aren’t economically beneficial. From there it’ll make it incredibly hard for anyone else to put forward similar proposals. 

Well that’s right, it’s not as if these companies are going to provide a massive influx of jobs or benefit the Australian economy. 

How long have you got? I can walk you through all the economics of it, and it’s terrible, but this is the system we’re up against. 

For me, personally, learning about all of the inner workings of this multi-million dollar companies has been a revelation. A few years ago I had no idea how the oil and gas industries worked out here, then when plans to drill in The Bight started I began digging a little deeper. It’s a total fucking scam. All of Australia’s mineral wealth [in this case, oil] is all just sailing overseas and we get fuck all from it. 

All of the wealth extracted from drilling The Bight in Equinor’s case will go straight back to Norway and the Norwegian people. If something damaging were to happen [note: such as an uncontained spill, which is a considerable possibility according to Equinor’s own reports], we would be the ones paying the price and receive no benefit, financial or otherwise. 

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Social media has played a massive role in spreading information of this movement and mobilising individuals, but at the end of the day nothing beats an in-person protest.

Photography

Tim Swallow

It’s quite hypocritical too, Norway and even Equinor make out as if they’re heavily invested in renewables. 

Oh yeah. If you look at Equinor’s Instagram account they look to be some progressive, European windfarm company, which makes you think it’s amazing. 

I’ll tell you what’s scary though. Out of all the major fossil fuel companies in the world, Equinor invests more in renewables than anyone else. But what percentage of their development budget do you think goes towards renewables.

Mmmm, maybe 10-percent? If that…

2-percent.

Fuck

That 2-percent is basically just marketing too. They sell this renewable image to the Norwegian people. Even their company slogan is ‘shaping the future of energy’, there’s nothing futuristic about drilling directly into the Bight for oil.

As I know you’ve seen, Equinor is spreading information about surfers reliance upon fossil fuel products for the equipment we use [which is largely true], what do we do to combat this? Are we partially responsible?

We 100-percent need to start transitioning ourselves. If we want to say no to something, then we need to say yes to something else. We need to push a counter-claim. 

The later we leave this transition the more fucked we’re going to be, and if we don’t do it now then when are we going to start this transition? 

There’s enough oil and fossil fuels currently dug up to get us through a transition to other alternatives, we don’t need to dig up anymore. It’s like knowing you need to give up drinking, but then going out and buying a 4-litre cask of fruity lexia and just saying you’ll quit tomorrow. At some point we have to stop and that time is now. 

The approach we need is a combination of bottom-up and top-down. We need the market to drive some of this transition, but we also need top-down policies to change where our energy and materials are sourced from. There’s too much money at the top for consumers to entirely drive this transition. 

It’s just unfortunate Australia, and many other countries, have governments which are essentially denying the realities of the climate crisis. 

Well, the transition [to renewables] is already happening, the market is changing already. In fact, the government is almost interfering to try and stop it. [Editor’s note: renewable energy such as solar and wind, according to most reliable sources, is equal in cost, if not cheaper to produce than energy from fossil fuels such as coal and gas.] 

It would be happening ten-times faster though if the government got their head out of the fossil fuel lobby’s ass and invested meaningfully in renewables, new industries, and getting a transition happening. 

Then you have Scott Morrison saying ‘we’re doing our part’, or that we’re only a small contributor to carbon emissions on a global scale. When in reality we’re up there in the top-three carbon emitters in the world per capita.

Totally. My analogy for that is I may as well start emptying my rubbish straight out into the middle of the road. I can’t single handedly make Australia any cleaner, so why should I care at all? 

From an economic perspective, my taxes provide nought-point-nought-nought-[this goes for a while]-one percentage of Australia’s tax revenue, but if I stopped paying it tomorrow I’d be locked up in a heartbeat. 

The thinking employed by these politicians is morally bankrupt. 

I promise we’ll get onto a nicer topic in a second.

Do you feel as if you have a responsibility to keep this movement going in Australia, since you’re one of the biggest voices in the surfing world pushing for action? 

Ahh, I’m actually enjoying it. This system we’re up against is really squealing to defend itself now. These companies have known what they were doing and the damage it would cause for 30-40 years, and now that the day of them being challenged is here they’re still trying to defend themselves. 

But I really enjoying challenging these people, it isn’t easy though.

We’re trying to implement plans looking 50-years ahead and we’re getting decisions that are just focused on the next 3-year electoral cycle. These policies are still driven by these soulless fossil fuel companies instead of the people.

On the original question though, there’s no real pressure to keep it going, I’d be doing this in my spare time anyway. 

What can an individual person do to change things?

Specific to The Bight, just keep hammering Equinor. Send emails to Equinor, comment on their social media pages, show up on the ground at these paddle outs and protests, the more people doing this the better.

In saying that, getting out on the ground and being there means a hell of a lot more than mere social media activism.

Do you think social media has played a positive role though?

Definitely, it’s allowed these communities to get together in the first place an dorganise these protests. 

To really get people to listen and understand one another though requires joining together in person. These paddle outs are almost like a party; they’re people with strong commonalities who love the coast and want to keep it the way it is. We’re not fucking asking that much, just for our pristine coast to be the same for the generations after us. 

I’ll move onto some less meaningful, innocuous questions, otherwise we’ll go on all day. 

Who’s your favourite male surfer right now?

You know what, I’m on team Ethan Ewing all the way. I love that kid. Fingers crossed he can do something at Sunset, I’d love to seem him back on tour.

What sort of result does he need?

He basically has to make the finals at Sunset. He made the final at Haleiwa and he’s looking really good.

Have to give Jack Robo a close second as well.

What about the females?

I’m on team Carissa. I have been for a long time and would love to see her get another one. I could watch her surf all day, she’s amazing. 

Is the comp starting tomorrow?

Yep, tomorrow morning. I got to get up and cover it. I’m pretty sure it’s definitely starting tomorrow. 

Best clip from this year?

Okay. Noa’s thing was amazing, he’s one of those surfers I could just watch all day. Creed’s clip was pretty amazing too, I’m a big Creedo fan boy; I like his direction and his style. 

Pretty much anything Mason puts out is great. It’s just fun and quirky. And Fun Boys as well. It’s easy to watch, and doesn’t take itself very seriously, which is what I like in a surf film. 

Alright, favourite hobby outside of surfing?

Mmm, okay… fuck…mate I’ve barely had time for anything [else]. 

Usually I just work and then try and fuck up giant fossil fuel companies – that’s been my whole year.

But I don’t mind birdwatching when I can. Spotted sacred kingfishers and gang gang cockatoos just in the last week. Other than that I’m really into my reading. 

Well, what’s the best book you’ve read this year?

I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s ‘This Storm’. 

What’s that, a novel or…

He’s live the American crime-noir king. It’s like 800-pages, it’s huge but I’ve read everything he’s ever written. He’s definitely one of my writing icons. 

You said you were writing some books at the moment as well. What are those on?

I’ve got one which is a narrative history of the World Tour; I’m co-writing that with Nick Carroll. And then  I have another one which is a set of nested biographies on everyone who’s in the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. I’m kind of approaching the home straight with those though. 

Alright, last one. Favourite band, artist, whatever?

Of all time?

Yeah, why not.

Mate well I’m Gen X so I have the same 2000 songs on my playlist which hasn’t changed in 20 years. The only thing new I’ve been feasting on a little is the new Tool album. It’s like a turn off the lights and put it on loud sort of album. 

I’ve been going back through by Midnight Oil as well. That’s pretty relevant to my crusade against the fossil fuel companies I’m on. Then I’m mixing that with a bit of Dead Kennedy’s as well. They wrote a song about an oil spill called ‘Moon Over Marin’ and I’ve been loving that again. 

I think I’m out of these crappy questions now [laughs]. Always try and lighten it up a little bit.

Yeah for sure. Going back to The Bight issue quickly it’s similar to that. It’s serious, but at the same time you have to enjoy it and make the projects fun to be apart of. 

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