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Issue # 1426      2 September 2009

Oil rig leakage a very bad omen

The leakage of natural gas, condensate and oil from beneath the West Atlas oil drilling rig off the Kimberley coast is ominous. The leakage commenced on August 21, and is potentially very dangerous for the marine environment.

By August 23 the leakage plume was 14 kilometres long by 30 metres wide. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) used Hercules aircraft to spray absorbent chemicals over the spill, and the federal Minister for Resources, Martin Ferguson, has declared that it is now stable. However, last Saturday the WA Greens claimed that the spill was within 20 kilometres of the Kimberly coast.

Workers were evacuated immediately after leakage commenced because of the high danger of fire around the rig, which is being sprayed with sea water to disperse the gas. Despite this, the company still has workers laying new pipes only 500 metres from the rig – well within the 2 kilometres aircraft exclusion zone which has been declared around it.

A slow boat to disaster

Initial operations to cap the leak were unsuccessful. Joe Martins, chief executive officer of PTTEP, the Thai company that owns the rig, claims that the capping plan has the “highest probability of success and the lowest risk”. However, he admitted that the company is “not sure exactly what caused any fracture or leakage”, and that “We’re dealing with a well that’s uncontrolled.”

A second mobile rig, which will be used to relieve pressure and seal the leak, won’t arrive before September 14. PTTEP refused the offer of a rig from Woodside Burma, which could have been in place two weeks earlier, citing safety considerations. According to the company’s undoubtedly optimistic estimate, the leak won’t be capped for eight weeks.

Martins has stated that ”We don’t know how much is flowing out…”. However, according to one source, about 470,000 litres is escaping each day – and over an eight week period that would amount to the same quantity that was released during the Exxon-Valdez disaster.

The federal government will investigate the accident, and the company may face prosecution if it has violated its operational conditions. But the government itself faces criticism for having approved the company’s manifestly inadequate spill contingency plan.

The Howard government approved the project, and the Rudd government approved the contingency plan in June. The company commenced operations almost immediately, but when the leakage occurred, the oil dispersal chemicals had to be flown in from Geelong via Darwin.

WA Greens Senator Rachel Stewart has said that the resultant two-day delay was too long, and that an emergency response unit should be located near the Kimberley exploration and drilling area.

The region is an important nursery ground and migration route for whales and turtles, and includes a very rich coral reef. On hearing about the estimated time for capping the leak, the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s director, Darren Kindleysides, commented: “…that’s seven or eight more weeks of oil that’s entering the environment. …

“Our northwest coast and seas are globally important for their marine wildlife. As development continues to expand off Western Australia, there will be an increased risk of this sort of incident occurring again.

“Beyond immediate action to minimise the impact of this spill on the marine environment, government must act to better safeguard our marine life. A safety net of large marine sanctuaries needs to be set up around our coastline as safe havens to buffer our marine life from development.

“Protection is currently the exception, not the norm. Less than one percent of the region is safeguarded within our marine parks.”

Who pays the piper?

The West Atlas spill illustrates the hazards involved in extracting oil from ever more remote regions, as oil wells in accessible areas are being exhausted. The West Atlas oil well is 3.6 kilometres below the ocean surface.

AMSA has indicated that the cost of using the aircraft “could run into the millions”. The company has called in global experts to advise on dealing with the spill. The total clean-up cost will undoubtedly dwarf the initial cost.

Senator Stewart wants PTTEP to establish a fund to cover the costs of long-term monitoring and repair after environmental damage. The company has stated it will pay for all the current repair costs. But will they? That’s what Exxon said after the Exxon Valdez oil spill twenty years ago, but the pollution from that disaster still fouls Alaskan beaches, and the local fishing industry has collapsed. Exxon fought all compensation claims from the victims, who received only ten percent of what they had sought. (See Rob Gowland’s articles in last week’s Guardian).

Chemical dispersal of the oil slick will remove evidence of the disaster from the public gaze, but local fishermen have claimed that is an extremely damaging approach, because the mass of treated material will be highly toxic and will kill the fish as it sinks to the sea bed. Marine scientist Walter Starck has stated: “There’s been a number of studies … that have found that the major damage done in oil spill clean-up activities has been done by the use of dispersants.”

Wider implications

The West Atlas leakage raises wider issues concerning our continued use of fossil fuels as energy sources. The site is one of many oil and natural gas fields being explored off the Kimberley coast with a view to exploitation.

With great gusto and fanfare the Rudd government recently hailed the agreement to open up the Gorgon natural gas field off WA’s Barrow Island. It dismissed environmental concerns, focusing attention on the stupendous wealth to be made from the resource.

The Gorgon operations will produce huge carbon emissions, which the consortium of corporations involved in the project intends to capture and store in subterranean fissures beneath Barrow Island.

Yet despite the consortium’s reassurances, their scientists have revealed that the emission fluids may well leak from the fissures.

And just in case you thought that rectifying such problems is the company’s concern, think again! To ensure that the project cleared environmental guidelines, the federal and West Australian governments have agreed to pay the potentially astronomical expenses for repairing environmental damage, in the event of a leakage of the fluids.

This not only underwrites the consortium’s operations at huge expense to the taxpayer, but also increases the risk of accidents, because the company won’t have to pay to fix things up.

Moreover, all the Kimberley operations will contribute to the build-up of atmospheric greenhouse gases. The use of fossil fuels certainly can’t be shut off overnight, but the contracts being entered into will lock in use of the facilities for decades.

We should be taking extremely urgent steps to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But that’s not on the agenda of the Rudd government, or of the oil and gas corporations whose interests they’re so eagerly serving.

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