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Issue #1457      2 June 2010

Despite disasters, government approves 31 oil exploration leases

Last month, despite recent marine drilling disasters in the Montara field off the Kimberley coast in Western Australia, and off Louisiana in the US, the Rudd government approved 31 new licences to carry out oil exploration within Australian coastal waters.

One of the sites is only 85 kilometres off the Margaret River outlet in Western Australia, within an area already earmarked as a potential marine sanctuary. Other sites are within the Carnarvon and Roebuck basins off the WA coast.

The Margaret River proposal has enraged members of WA environmental and community groups, who were anticipating the declaration of a marine park off the Margaret River outlet.

Tim Nichol, the Marine Coordinator of the WA Conservation Council, stated:

“The Conservation Council condemns this move by Martin Ferguson (federal Minister for Energy), and calls on the government to ensure protection of our unique southwest marine life by establishing a network of large marine sanctuaries in Commonwealth waters off our southwest coast”.

Using CSIRO wind and wave data and pollution modelling, the Conservation Council has tracked the likely course of oil spill pollution from the proposed exploration site, and has concluded that it would almost certainly reach the WA coast.

Tim Nichol commented: “Currently, less than one percent of WA’s marine life is protected. Marine sanctuaries provide important marine habitats, a buffer from the impacts of smaller oil spills, seismic activity and drilling, and provide a safe haven for our marine life to survive and thrive into the future.

“Up to 90 percent of the marine life in the southwest is unique, and half the word’s whale and dolphin species use the region. This new oil lease in an area that has been identified for its high conservation value puts our unique marine life at risk. For example, if the Montara oil spill had happened in the southwest, we could have seen oil on the beaches from Perth to Margaret River”.

A blind eye turned towards disaster

The Montara explosion and oil spill disaster off WA’s Kimberley coast spread oil over a huge area, inflicting major damage to the surrounding area, which contains vast areas of exquisite coral and marine life. The leaking drill site was plugged with tremendous difficulty, after weeks of discharge. The oil spill narrowly missed the Western Australian coastline and is still a source of concern.

In the US, the oil drilling leak at the BP drilling site off the Louisiana coast has eclipsed the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 as an environmental disaster, and will almost certainly ruin the thriving coastal fishing industry.

Huge tar balls have been rolling up on the Louisiana beaches, and the oil sludge is invading environmentally sensitive coastal marshes. The oil is likely to spread as far as Cuba in the south, and northwards for hundreds of kilometres up the US coast. In areas where chemicals have been used to disperse the sludge, 25 percent of marine life has been killed.

US President Obama and his predecessors stand accused of ignoring the perils of ocean oil drilling. However, his action in halting all new marine oil drilling is at least a step in dealing with the problem, even if too little too late. The Rudd government, on the other hand, proceeded to grant the 31 new leases for oil exploration in Australian coastal waters, regardless of the Kimberley and Louisiana disasters. The government appears to have taken the view that because the Montara eruption was not a disaster on the same scale as the Exxon Valdez spillage, it could be ignored, with “business as usual” the order of the day.

The larger picture

The marine oil drilling disasters the world is witnessing have resulted partly from the incredible technical difficulties in extracting oil from deep below sea level. However, they also result from the increasing rate of extraction from marine oil deposits, which in turn has resulted from the “peak oil” phenomenon that is afflicting many of the world’s great mainland oil deposits.

In any oil field the extraction process eventually results in a loss of subterranean oil pressure, after which pressure has to be applied from the surface. Eventually, at the “peak oil” limit, extraction becomes economically unfeasible. At this stage the wells are, in effect, exhausted.

Oil is a finite resource that is running low and the combustion of oil in vehicles and industry is also a major contributor to global warming. Therefore, the solution to the oil drilling disasters doesn’t lie in overcoming the huge difficulties in safely extracting oil from marine or shale oil deposits, but rather in abandoning oil and utilising renewable energy sources.

However, the oil and mining corporations will fßight to block or delay implementation of such policies – even if it increases the rate of marine oil spill disasters. The Rudd government, which has even dropped its pathetically feeble emissions trading scheme, and the Liberal/National opposition parties, whose leaderships are dominated by climate sceptics, serve the interests of those corporations.

When all is said and done, as far as the environment is concerned the major parties really don’t give a damn. The Australian people will have to look elsewhere, to left and progressive political forces, to achieve a cleaner and safer world.  

Next article – Editorial – The lawless “special relationship”

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