Australia: Oil Spill Disaster Continues – The Toll Rises

10-27-09, 8:54 am

Original source: The Guardian (Australia)

The people of the region have looked on helplessly as a leak from an oil rig covers thousands of square kilometres of environmentally sensitive waters off Australia’s northwest coast with a sludge-laden slick. The Thai company that operates the West Atlas rig is regrouping for a fourth attempt to stem the flow at the well head 2.6 kilometres below the surface. By the time it is plugged, more than 37 million litres of oil could have belched into waters that ecologists point out contain one of the richest marine faunas in the world. The livelihoods of Indonesian fishermen are also at risk. The Rudd government is setting up an inquiry and is clearly sensitive to claims its Wild West policy of encouragement to oil and gas prospecting and production has led us into an environmental disaster.

Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson is appointing a commissioner to set terms of reference for the inquiry into the spill in the Montara oilfield. The government rejected an amendment from Greens Senator Rachel Siewert to enshrine broad terms of reference for future investigations of this type. She was concerned the probe might only look into the technical and regulatory issues and not review the clean-up operations or the environmental impacts of the spill. The minister says he had already been considering extensive powers for the inquiry in light of a report on the explosion last year at the gas plant on Varanus Island, about 100 kilometres off the coast from the Pilbara town of Karratha.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett says he has developed a wildlife response plan to deal with the effects of the spill. A consultant’s report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) soon after the leak began on August 21 found that the remote area in the Timor Sea teems with life. Fifteen species of whales and dolphins, 30 species of seabirds and five turtle species are affected by the disaster. Fishermen have found sea snakes and turtles killed by the slick and report becoming ill after eating fish from the waters.

Thai rig operators PTTEP are said to be paying the Commonwealth for the costs of monitoring the spill. Industry estimates put the final cost of the spill as high as $100 million but the environmental cost, which cannot be expressed solely in dollars and cents, is immense. This is exactly the sort of nightmare scenario state and federal governments must have dreaded as they increase the pace of resource extraction in an attempt to prop up a fragile economy. With Australian manufacturing moving offshore or simply closing their doors and other sectors of the economy slowing in the wake of the global financial crisis, governments are banking on income from big resource customers like India and China.

Environmental concerns over the proposed Gargon gas project off WA’s northwest coast were dismissed by the federal government in August. The scheme incorporates a gas plant on Barrow Island, which lies in the heart of an area dubbed “Australia’s Galapagos”. Part of the “sell” for the project was the introduction of pioneering and unproven carbon dioxide burying technique. Critics claim the unstable sea floor will cause the greenhouse gas to escape and threaten wildlife.

Elsewhere, the federal government has jettisoned its three mine uranium policy and is now considering a rush of exploration licence applications. In July, the Environment Minister gave the go ahead for Alliance Resources to move into production using the controversial acid corrosion method to extract uranium at the Four Mile mine in the northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia. At the nearby Beverley mine there have been 59 reported spills of radioactive material in the past decade, including one involving 62,000 litres of contaminated water in 2002. There is no requirement placed on Alliance to ever clean up the radioactive plumes that will develop in ground water in the area as a result of the extraction method.

Clearly the federal government is prepared to take big risks with the environment as it turns over resources for development to corporations on the hunt for fat profits. To ensure its sovereignty Australia needs resource industries. It also needs manufacturing and agricultural industries but it cannot provide a liveable environment into the future without a more cautious approach and the strictest oversight of operations that threaten such disastrous consequences as have been witnessed off our northwest coast. Ultimately, the question of public ownership and democratic control will be forced on the people of Australia as a matter of survival.