Overnight, the Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has also released 7300km2 of detailed government-funded seafloor maps to the oil industry.
These revelations come just days after the Conservation Council uncovered that an oil industry expansion proposed for release in May will impact areas under consideration for inclusion in a new network of marine parks, including a large area of proposed new leases just 83km offshore from Margaret River.
The new data released by Martin Ferguson is designed to encourage further interest in oil exploration within the SW marine environment, in particular the Perth Basin and the Mentelle Basin offshore from the capes region. The data will help to create interest in the new oil leases.
So why is now the time to be concerned about the release of this lease, rather than further down the track when an actual proposal to drill for oil might be on the table?
Firstly, a little background. The way oil exploration roles out in Australia is explained in a simplified way below (for more detailed explanation click here):
1. Government completes seismic surveys of the ocean bottom and releases that data to the industry
2. When they find an area of high interest through a nomination process the Government release it as a new exploration lease – this occurs every year at the APPEA (the petroleum industry association) conference and is released by the Resources Minister, this year on the 16th May.
3. Following release, oil and gas companies bid on the released leases
4. If the release is snapped up, it will likely be under ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ conditions that require companies to begin exploration on an escalating scale, beginning with further seismic but also likely to include drilling within a set timeframe, probably a few years.
Thus the urgency is not around a direct proposal for drilling, but rather around the time at which something can actually be done about it. This petroleum lease has not yet been announced, so there is still month in which the decision to release it can be influenced. Once the lease has been released, the Government has started set the groundwork for future development and is in a position of having encouraged a company to spend money on the lease. This is when momentum starts and the situation heads towards the usual scenario of trying to influence or stop projects when they are already well advanced.
The second piece of background is around the marine parks planning process. This is part of the Commonwealth Governments commitment to creating a network of marine reserves around Australia by 2012. Last year the Environment Department released Areas for Further Assessment (AFFAs) in the SW planning region between Kangaroo Island and Kalbarri – these AFFAs are the areas of highest environmental importance where the Government is considering placing the new marine parks (i.e. not actual park boundaries but indications of where the key values requiring protection occur). The proposed exploration lease is within the SW Corner AFFA. The actual draft marine park boundaries will be released later this year.
There are two key problems here that need to be addressed:
1. The Government should not be releasing new areas for oil development in an area designated for future marine parks until the marine parks planning process is finished. Once oil leases have been declared, it will be much harder to get marine sanctuaries in place.
2. Do people even want a new oil industry off the coast from Margaret River and the beaches of the Cape to Cape National Park? And under what conditions? Now is the best time to raise these questions before large amounts of money have been spent on deepwater offshore exploration.
Impacts of oil exploration are many but include:
– Direct impact of drilling – i.e. drill cuttings on seabed and additional pollution in the environment.
– Seismic survey impacts – the noise from seismic surveys is known to affect whales, the debate is just about how much whales are affected and how effective the management measures used are in reducing the impact. Is the impact just avoidance behavior, or can it damage the hearing of whales, or even cause increased numbers of whale strandings? The SW corner includes important areas for many whale species.
– Accidents and spills – spills vary in size and damage, the most recent example of a massive spill was just last year when the Montara oil platform spilled oil into the water off Northern Western Australia for 10 weeks. This is an example of the extreme but very real end of the risk spectrum; but smaller spills during routine operations are much more common and add to the overall pollution in the marine environment. An increase in ships carrying oil along the coast also increases the risk of spills and accidents. A list of oil spills in Australian waters is provided at the AMSA website – including the high profile sinking of the Kirki and Sanko Harvest ships off WA’s SW coast.
The West Australian newspaper recently covered this issue, check out here.
You can take action via Save Our Marine Life at www.saveourmarinelife.org.au