Oil spill causes environmental disaster

September 13, 2009

Federal resources minister Martin Ferguson responded to the disastrous August 21 oil spill off the north-west coast of Australia by proposing to set up a new investigative body. The September 7 announcement claimed the new body would have the power to investigate such oil spillages and to "stop it happening again".

Thousands of litres of oil, gas and condensate have leaked into the Timor Sea from a wellhead near PTTEP Australasia's West Atlas oil rig.

Ferguson's comments came after Greens Senator Rachel Siewert chartered a plane on August 28 to investigate the site of the oil spill. On ABC Radio on August 29, she said: "The spill is far worse than the community has been led to believe.

"The oil in the water is at a minimum of around 180 kilometres from east to west … It's also much closer to the coast than we had been led to believe and with a tide slick line within around 10 nautical miles, which is 20 miles from the coast."

Despite both Ferguson and state Premier Colin Barnett playing down the extent of the disaster, the Wilderness Society (TWS) is concerned about the serious ongoing impact it will have on the marine wildlife off the Kimberley coast.

"The region where this spill is occurring is a 'marine superhighway' for a range of species including over 19 species of Whales and Dolphins, including the Humpback Whale", TWS said in an open letter to federal environment minister Peter Garrett on August 28.

"Sea Snakes, many bird species, fish and other wildlife will also be impacted."
It is estimated that the West Atlas rig will continue to spew toxic oil and gas into the environment for up to eight weeks.

Other developments are planned in the region, including a proposal to pump gas from Browse Basin to the Kimberley coast. This would have serious impacts on the surrounding environment, with the gas extraction, sub-sea pipes and greatly increased traffic laying the basis for future environmental disasters.

"The Kimberley's waters are a 'marine wonderland' of global significance, but currently less than 1% of its waters have any marine protected areas", TWS said. It called on the federal government to "declare a moratorium on further approvals and expansion of the oil and gas industry in the region pending the completion of the North West marine planning process currently underway and the implementation of marine parks as part of this process".

Ferguson's plan to set up an investigative body won't prevent future environmental problems, because they are an inherent aspect of the industry.

Kamala Emanuel from the Safe Climate Coalition told Green Left Weekly: "Ferguson's move is more about solving a public relations problem than solving an environmental problem.

"You could tell that Ferguson means no harm to the fossil fuel polluters when [opposition resources spokesperson Ian] Macfarlane came out and endorsed Ferguson's proposal.

"The main concern of both the major parties is to protect the profits of the fossil fuel corporations, not protect the environment and tackle climate change.

"The only way to truly end similar environmental disasters is to move rapidly towards renewable energy and phase out fossil fuel use."

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