AAP, The West Australian
April 11, 2012, 11:46 am
UPDATE 12.20pm: One of the world’s healthiest marine environments will be threatened by a major oil and gas drilling program just 10km off WA’s pristine Rowley Shoals, conservationists say.
Woodside Petroleum and Shell will start a combined $350 million exploration program next year.
The work will include seismic surveys and test drilling just outside state and federal marine parks protecting the three atolls that make up the Rowley Shoals, 300km off the Kimberley coast.
Woodside was awarded three exploration leases by the Federal Government in November, covering more than 10,000 square kilometres of ocean just west of the Rowley Shoals.
However, three more leases are up for tender that will totally enclose the reef system, leaving a buffer zone of just three nautical miles (about 5.5km) around each atoll.
Woodside would not say whether it was bidding for the new leases, which close on Thursday, but confirmed drilling operations for its existing offshore permits.
“Each well we drill is subject to rigorous environmental risk assessments and planning,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Well-integrity and safety is our highest priority.”
However, WWF WA director Paul Gamblin said even a modest spill or blowout so close to the reef system would be disastrous.
“It’s not so long since we had the Montara oil spill which is not too far away,” he said.
“Even something much smaller than the Montara spill right next to a coral reef would be devastating.”
Mr Gamblin said the atolls were among the healthiest in the world due to their remote location and rich biodiversity.
While the northern Mermaid Reef is protected by the Commonwealth, the southern Clerke and Imperieuse reefs are state marine parks.
“Lying on the very edge of Australia’s continental shelf, they are regarded as the most perfect examples of shelf-edge atolls in Australian waters,” WA’s Department of Environment and Conservation describes them on its website.
WA Environment Minister Bill Marmion told ABC Radio on Wednesday that Canberra’s decision to open the area up to oil and gas was “outside our control”.
“The Commonwealth have made the call on this and I would hope that because they’ve made the call they’d analyse the situation properly and make sure there’s no chance of oil spills,” he said.
Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said his office had provided advice to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism highlighting “key ecological features, such as the Rowley Shoals”.
“All proposals referred to the department are assessed on a case-by-case basis, and are subject to a rigorous and transparent assessment process, including an opportunity for public comment,“ Mr Burke said in a statement.
Mr Gamblin said the decision to release more oil and gas acreage was at odds with the federal government’s pledge to establish a network of marine sanctuaries around the nation.
“The Rowley Shoals, Kimberly coast, Ningaloo, Margaret River, the areas off the Great Australian Bight - all of these areas are coming under increasing pressure from the oil and gas industry at a time when the federal government is supposed to be creating marine parks,” he said.“At a time when most of the world’s coral reefs are under enormous threat or been significantly damaged, the Rowley Shoals stand out there as one of the last hopes the world has for protecting an outstanding, diverse and pristine coral reef system.”