Q&A: Research director of the Great Australian Bight Research Program, Dr Steve Lapidge

Research Director of the Great Australian Bight Research Program, Dr Steve Lapidge,

Research director of the Great Australian Bight Research Program, Dr Steve Lapidge

By Emma Brown

June 4, 2015

The Great Australian Bight Research Program is one of the largest whole-of-ecosystem studies ever undertaken in Australia waters. The area is a unique marine environment, home to thousands of marine species, of which a significant proportion are endemic.  The potential of the area for oil and gas reserves has also long been known. Program research director Dr Steve Lapidge spoke to Emma Brown about its significance. 

  1. How did the Great Australian Bight Research Program come about?

After award of its exploration permits in the Great Australian Bight (GAB) in 2011, BP held discussions with a number of research providers including CSIRO, the South Australian Research and Development Institute, and Adelaide and Flinders Universities regarding suggested approaches to identifying and addressing gaps in scientific knowledge in the GAB.  In early 2012, a working group was established to scope out a possible research program, provide advice on the best capability to conduct the proposed studies, and develop a management structure for the implementation of the program. The recommendations of the working group were accepted by the partners, who then formed a research collaboration and agreed to funding arrangements.  This led to the program as it is today.

  1. What is the importance of the research program?

 The GAB is a unique marine environment, and the Research Program will provide an ecological and economic baseline for the area. Most people are keen to see oil and gas exploration in the area but at the same time it is already a very important economic area for both South Australia and Australia as a whole. Currently the GAB produces 25 per cent of Australia’s seafood production by value, and supports the country’s largest commercial fishery by volume, so it’s an important area for our economy; but so is oil and gas potentially. Therefore it is very important to make sure that the social and environmental values of the GAB, including fishing, ecotourism and conservation, are maintained. Future management of the GAB should be based on adequate baseline data and policies underpinned by science.

  1. What results are you hoping the research will produce?

The program will improve our understanding of the environmental, economic and social values of the GAB. The research will produce many significant findings that will improve our knowledge of how the GAB functions. The one that will spark the most interest is the ecosystem models that are being developed, such as CSIRO’s Atlantis model.  This is a whole of system model that includes the environment and socio-economics that will help us understand how developments could interact with the environment – it has even been rated by the United Nations as the best ecosystem model in the world. The Atlantis and other ecosystem models being developed, along with the supporting data and models that feed in to them, will be a lasting legacy from the program.

  1. What resources are being used to undertake the project (people, companies and technology)?

 The $20 million, four-year program is jointly funded by the partners; BP is contributing $14 million, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship $3 million, and some members of Marine Innovation Southern Australia (SARDI, Adelaide and Flinders Universities) another $3 million. About 100 scientists and academics are working on the program. The scientists’ backgrounds range from oceanographers to economists to sociologists and petroleum geochemists, as well as scientists studying food webs to understand why the area supports so much marine biomass.

  1. When did it start and how long will it take?

The program began in 2013 when the Marine National Facility research vessel, Southern Surveyor, undertook our first research cruise in the GAB. The Marine National Facility’s new vessel that replaced RV Southern Surveyor in 2014, the RV Investigator, will be able to explore even deeper waters in the GAB in December 2015.

The program is scheduled over a four year period as there is a lot of work involved, some of which is seasonal. For example, when looking at currents, waves and food webs they are different every season; even every year. By conducting the research over a four-year period we are getting a much broader view of the GAB and a better understanding of the ecosystem.

The program will wrap-up in mid-2017 and by then a series of reports and products including ecosystem models will be produced and released. These findings will significantly improve our knowledge on how the GAB functions.

  1. Why is the area so significant to the oil and gas industry?

 BP has stated that it appears that all the fundamentals for a petroleum province exist off the coast of South Australia.  A lot of the major oil companies from around the world will also be exploring different leases within the GAB. BP obtained exploration permits in the area in 2011 but since then Chevron and Murphy/Santos have also obtained exploration permits in the GAB.

  1. Which activities is BP currently undertaking in the area?

 BP and partner Statoil plan to drill exploration wells from late 2016 in its GAB permits subject to regulatory approval, having completed an extensive 3D seismic program in 2012.

  1. Can the results of this program be applied to other ecosystems in the world?

 While the GAB is a unique environment, the techniques, and approaches developed in this research program will have broader applicability to other ecosystems throughout the world. We certainly believe it is a distinctive research program in Australia and possibly the world.  This is because of its breadth and as a result of the collaboration between BP and the research partners it builds on existing knowledge internationally. In terms of specific results, they will be related to the GAB, however comparisons with other systems will be possible.

  1. Have you ever worked on such a significant project?

 It is certainly one of the more exciting projects I have worked on. To me, it’s unique, it’s multi-faceted and every day is really interesting. BP aren’t actually required to do this research; it’s being done to really understand how the GAB operates for everyone’s benefit, which is what makes the program so exciting. BP talks about their exploration program being frontier exploration; for us it is frontier science! What is being discovered on the ocean floor for example is new to science – we are making new discoveries all the time. It is quite remarkable.