FILE: Statoil's logo is seen during a company results presentation in London, Feb. 6, 2015.
FILE: Statoil's logo is seen during a company results presentation in London, Feb. 6, 2015.

SYDNEY - Controversial oil exploration along a wild stretch of Australia's southern coast fabled for its whales and surf has sparked protests outside a resources conference in the city of Adelaide. A Norwegian company plans to start drilling in the Great Australian Bight next year.

The Great Australian Bight is a large, open bay off the coast of southern Australia. It is home to sea lions and sharks, and is a nursery for the endangered southern right whale.

It is not only an ecological gem, but an economic one. Resources companies have long nurtured ambitions to drill for oil and gas in the area.

Conservationists believe that development of the Bight has the potential to cause "environmental devastation" that could have consequences to other distant parts of the vast Australian coast.

Activists have staged a mock oil spill in protest outside a meeting of industry representatives in Adelaide.

Nathaniel Pelle, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, says there is mounting community opposition to the plan.

"People of the Great Australian Bight; fishermen, mayors, tourism leaders, Indigenous leaders have not consented to this company drilling in this area. Nobody here wants to risk an oil spill," said Pelle.

The mayor of Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Peter Clements, was so worried about the prospect of oil exploration in the Great Australian Bight he traveled to Norway to tell the annual general meeting of the country's biggest oil and gas company, Statoil, what his community thought of the plan.

Resources giants BP and Chevron each have recently abandoned plans to drill in the area because of concerns over the low price of oil and other strategic reasons.

But Matthew Doman, a spokesperson for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, says the Norwegian plan will proceed responsibly.

"Quite clearly there are some in the community who are opposed to this endeavor. We understand their environmental concerns but we are very proud of our track record of protecting the environment while we develop the economy, create opportunities and jobs and we are determined that we will do that in South Australia as we have done in other areas," he said.

The Australian government has previously said that future oil and gas development in the Great Australian Bight would strengthen the nation's "long-term energy security."