We’re a big, smart, rich, clever country with a lot of natural gifts and we should be doing way fucking better than just digging up rocks.”—Sean Doherty.

Sean Doherty has spent the past couple of years fighting a fossil fuel company from Norway. Yesterday he won. The announcement from Equinor to abandon plans for exploration drilling in the Great Australian Bight came as a surprise to supporters and critics alike. 

“You wake up this morning and you have 27 missed calls and wonder what the fuck is going on and its good news,” said Seano when Tracks calls him hours after the announcement. 

The former Tracks editor inadvertently became the mouthpiece for a campaign to stop big oil from drilling in one of the wildest and most pristine environments on the planet. 

When Equinor posted a map on social media showing every possible oil spill dispersion from their proposed site in the Great Australian Bight with the modelling stretching to Port Macquarie it was game on. 

Doherty helped produce two documentaries for Patagonia and campaigned hard with South Oz local Heath Joske to promote the issue and went on to co-ordinate #fightforthebight paddle outs for thousands of people up and down the Australian coastline. 

The campaign gained both national and international media attention and outcome is a potent reminder for what is possible when concerned citizens step up and make their voice heard. 

Tracks spoke to Sean Doherty about the success of the campaign and how it cuts through the big issues facing us in the current age. 

Tracks: You poked holes into Equinor’s plan to drill in the Bight since day one. How does this news feel?

To be honest I didn’t expect it. Probably most of the way along it felt like it was a long shot. Just about everything was stacked against us. The political climate, the way things are and the way this country tends to run is that these big decisions people just get bulldozed and these things just happen. And I really took it as a win that we got the campaign to where we got it. That so many people had turned up and showed up and spoke up and did something. I took that as a win. Mate to get that decision and phone call this morning it’s just fucking unreal. Seriously it’s completely out of the blue and I’m completely over the moon.

Do you think this is the end of the line for oil exploration in the Bight?

I think it’s pretty close. Equinor is incredibly well resourced [and] are actually pretty good operators. Because of the ownership model—they’re owned by the people of Norway—they were the best prospect to make something happen there. And if they can’t, and they’ve turned around and said, ‘No’ and they’re the third now, there’s been BP and Chevron, and they’re three big dogs and they’ve said, ‘No’ it’s going to be really hard for anyone else to take it up. Mate it’s a big cost in a really uncertain world. 

Equinor said the decision was based on it “not being commercially competitive”. Do you buy that?

Nah, fuck no. That’s what every one of them says. Like I said it’s a huge cost being the first one in into new ground like that. I’m sure it’s part of the decision but personally I kind of think the relentless pressure of a couple of years has probably gnawed on them and they’ve got to have a social conscience because they’re owned by the people of Norway. It’s really eaten away at them.

Personally, I think the fires here were a big trigger this summer. I reckon if you look at the amount of press those fires got internationally, in particular in Europe, and I keep a pretty close eye on what gets reported in the Norwegian press, and it was big news. I just reckon they’ve had a look at it and gone, ‘Well Australia’s been the poster boy for climate change and we’re going to go down and dig a dangerous dirty hole and make it worse y’ know. They really saw the risk of being attached to that and I think that has played a huge part. 

The paddle outs across Australia saw thousands of people young and old turn out to protest against it, plus there was a lot of pressure through social media. Did people power squash this thing? 

Oh yeah, 100 percent. I reckon when they went it to this Equinor I reckon they thought this was the last thing on Earth that would have happened to them. Equinor still has a lease on a gas field in Australia’s northwest shelf and they still have that there now. They look at remote areas because the chance of reputational damage and people turning up on beaches is pretty slim because there’s not a lot of people down there you know. I reckon they chose the Bight strategically so they wouldn’t get a lot of push back and they got the shock of their fucking life. 20,0000 commented on the post and everyone started showing up on beaches, filled in submissions and that would have been their worst-case scenario I reckon. And then it landed back on their doorstep in Norway. People started protesting back over there as well. So it’s played a huge part in their decision

Have you spoken to Heath Joske or any other locals down there? 

[Laughs] Yeah I think they’re planning like a three-week bush doof down there at Joske’s place at Streaky. I’ve spoken to some of the original campaign crew—they’ve been fighting this since it was BP, since the lease went in in 2012 they’ve been fighting it and they’re lost for words. They can’t believe it. This is way beyond their wildest where they thought this might land. They were of the same assumption I was on that it would probably happen. And then they get this gift-wrapped present here on a Tuesday morning. It’s going to pretty wild down there for a week I reckon. 

Your Instagram has been a mouthpiece for political commentary on holding our government’s ideology around climate change to account. Was this issue the catalyst for you in being a more active voice and have you been surprised by the response from people? 

Ah yeah probably for sure…for me like in terms of lighting a fire under my arse absolutely. I’ve always kind of wanted to rip into something like this. But as a working Dad Al you know very well you’ve got to keep the wolves from the door and it’s really hard. The one thing I’ve learned from this is that I’ve gained a new appreciation for everyone who devotes time for conservation, for any social causes, for anyone who gives time away for free to do something that’s not for them. I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for what those people give up. But really the Instagram thing is just tapping into something that’s already there mate. There’s a lot of people who are really disaffected and fucking pissed off about the way the country is being run. You know it’s like The Flintstones are running this country, it’s crazy. We’re a big, smart, rich, clever country with a lot of natural gifts and we should be doing way fucking better than just digging up rocks. 

Do you reckon this news today will motivate more people to hold the government to account for selling out our backyard to the highest bidder and is this the way battles like this are going to be fought you think in the future?

I think most people who turned out to these paddle outs were like me and thought it might be a long shot. You never go into these things thinking you’re going to win it. It’s a long shot. Everything’s against you. So to get this result, every one of those people who paddled out, everyone in their close circle will be at the next one I’ll tell ya now that feeling already this morning of all the crew who’d given up a bit to just turn up and paddle out one day, they’ll come back because they’ve seen they’ve actually made a contribution to keeping Australia the way it is. Saving it for the next generation. There’s a real personal sense in that and I think it’ll just be ongoing, it’ll change forms, there will be different issues, sadly we’re not running out of them—they’re everywhere you look. So it’s kind of given people a new sense of what’s around them and probably what they’ve got to do if they want to save it. 

Well, congratulations mate I feel you deserve a beer and thanks from a lot of people for the effort and energy you put into lighting up this issue. You’ve been relentless. Hats off to you mate you should be really proud of yourself. 

Thanks Al. I thought midday might be a bit early but I’ll take you up on that beer. I’m just brewing a couple right now and don’t worry I will be cracking one this arvo