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Issue #1436      18 November 2009

Oil leak plugged – environment still at risk

The leak has been plugged and the fire on the West Atlas rig is out but so is the dirty secret – the rich marine environment off Australia’s north-west coast is under threat from the headlong rush to exploit the region’s oil and gas reserves. A fortnight ago, the owners of the rig – Thai company PTTEP – announced their fifth attempt to plug the well head on the floor of the Timor Sea had been successful. For more than ten weeks the equivalent of over at least 400 barrels a day had been spewing into the Timor Sea.

The West Atlas oil rig. Part of PTTE's Safety, Security, Health and Environment statement: "PTTEP’s ultimate SSHE goal is to conduct its activities without undue impact on the personnel and properties of the Company and its contractors, the general public and the environment." Note the inclusion of the word "undue" and how protection of the company's property ranks higher than that of the general public and environment!

In spite of the costs in dealing with the disaster, PTTEP was still able to record a $175.5 million profit for the quarter. Publicly, the federal government is talking tough about recouping the cost of the cleanup. Privately, it is happy the disaster did not excite greater public concern and put a damper on the fever of prospecting and resource exploitation off our coast.

Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson called the disaster “disappointing”. “If [PTTEP] are found to be at fault with respect to any of their responsibilities then potential action will be ... considered,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. Environment Minister Peter Garrett is also said to be looking into whether the company breached any national environment laws. The belated tough stance is not convincing. Ferguson’s initial response to news of the spill was to suggest that it posed no threat at all and that the slick was evaporating “naturally”.

This rosy assessment bore no relationship to reality. Eventually, leading ecologist Dr James Watson was sent to examine the damage caused by the slick that had spread over 4,223 square kilometres. He was stunned by the amount of marine life in the area and the havoc caused. “There were more birds, more whales, more sea snakes in the area that contained the oil than in the areas that didn’t ... some animals are unable to survive due to this oil slick.” He noted that birds appeared to have a deadly attraction to the slick. “I am amazed at how little Australians care about this. This is a huge oil slick,” he concluded.

The leak was finally plugged by pouring heavy mud into the well head. It is being monitored and a mixture of light mud and brine is being pumped into the relief well to stabilise the situation. A method for capping the number one bore well is being devised.

Doubtless the government will view the plight of the company and its expenditure of $177 million on the spill sympathetically. While the disaster was unfolding, PTTEP announced plans to buy an additional 1,480 square kilometres of Australia’s oilfields. Resources Minister Ferguson was not going to be involved in determining the application – that will be done by the Foreign Investment Review Board – but he was making encouraging noises from the sidelines. “PTTEP will continue to be treated by government on a non-discriminatory basis in its activities and operations here in Australia,” he said. Discouragement of companies like PTTEP could take the edge off the resources sector and endanger Australia’s one trick economy.

Dr Watson wonders if Australia is “stepping on the gas” too quickly to extract the economic benefit from our offshore fuel reserves. He worries that similar accidents could happen closer to the Kimberley coast with catastrophic results.

The federal government does not appear to share these concerns or, if it does, it is prepared to run the enormous risks associated to to fuel the economy. For this to happen it needs corporations to continue to bring their operations to Australia and they must be left to rip out resources as quickly as possible in order to guarantee fat profits. Australia needs resource industries but our future is threatened if we don’t have a liveable environment. Ultimately, as a matter of survival the question of public ownership and democratic control will have to be put on the table.

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