By Tim Nicol
(Tim Nicol is the Marine Campaign Coordinator for Conservation Council of WA and Save Our Marine Life. Save Our Marine Life is an alliance of ten major conservation groups working towards marine protection in WA’s southwest)
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is proving to be one of those environmental events which could result in significant changes to the way we view the oil and gas industry and the industrialization of our oceans.
Just like the Exxon Valdez spill reformed oil tanker shipping and the horrifying Bhopal toxic disaster affected the chemical industry, a major shift in community confidence and potentially enormous regulatory changes could impact the petroleum industry operating in America, including seeing more areas protected from drilling. In Australia however, it’s been a different story.
Yesterday, we say Tony Abbott back away from the regional marine planning process designed to increase the protection afforded to Australia’s oceans. Ironically, the process is an initiative of the previous coalition Government. The move was particularly surprising given recent polling showing eight-in-ten Western Australian voters support high levels of marine protection.
Labor is also guilty of neglect of our oceans in the face of the oil industry. Late last year we witnessed our own oil catastrophe, the explosive blow out on the Montara rig off the Kimberley coast, which then pumped oil into our seas for more than 10 weeks. As we wait for the findings of the inquiry into the Australian spill and we watch the devastation in the Gulf unfold, we have seen the Australian Government open new oil drilling leases, including in the Kimberley and in an area under consideration for protection offshore from Margaret River.
The majestic Kimberley coastline is awash with life. A virtual marine superhighway for migratory species, the area is home to a wide array of sea turtles, fish, seabirds and whales, including 28,000 humpbacks who arrive at this time every year to calve. It’s hard to imagine a worse place for an oil spill.
Except perhaps Margaret River. The clean beaches and oceans of the southwest are home to one third of the world’s whale and dolphin species, including one of Australia’s two known feeding grounds for the world’s largest whale, the Blue Whale, in the Perth Canyon offshore from Perth. Up to 90% of the marine life in the region is unique, a higher level of unique marine life that the Great Barrier Reef.
Yet last spring, countless barrels of oil poured into the Timor Sea off Australia’s Kimberley coast. Satellite images show the Montara spill eventually spread over 6000 square kilometers, fishermen as far away as Indonesia reported finding contaminated fish and it’s still uncertain how much oil was actually released into the environment.
Offshore from Margaret River, the Government has invited the oil industry in to drill in an area even deeper and more remote than the site of the disastrous US spill.
We can no longer afford to ignore the devastating reality of the risks involved in quenching our national thirst for oil and gas.
Leading marine scientists from around the globe are in agreement about the need to create a network of large sanctuaries in areas that marine life rely on for feeding and breeding. The more we separate offshore drilling from our most critical marine ecosystems the more virtual insurance the public receives in protecting valuable assets.
Since the Kimberley oil spill, 31 new oil and gas lease areas have been opened up by the Australian Government, but nothing has been done to safeguard our marine life and coastal communities.
It’s time to take the same sort of precautionary action being considered in the United States here, as well. Putting in place a network of large marine sanctuaries in Australian waters would provide a prudent investment in the future health of our nation’s unique marine life.