Monday, April 16, 2012

Rowley Shoals oil and gas exploration controversy

ELEANOR HALL: The Federal Government's decision to call for expressions of interest in oil and gas projects close to a protected marine area is sparking another environmental battle in the country's north.

Rowley Shoals is a pristine reef about 260 kilometres north-west of Broome and is protected by three marine parks.

Environment reporter Conor Duffy:

CONOR DUFFY: You can't get much more remote than Rowley Shoals off the north-west coast of Western Australia.

And rare underwater footage provided to the ABC shows the isolation has meant protection.

ABC  Conor Duffy reported this story on Wednesday, April 11, 2012 07:27:00

Paul Gamblin from the World Wildlife Fund hopes it'll show the world what a special place the Rowley Shoals is.

PAUL GAMBLIN: It's kind of an Attenborough moment when you look at this footage and really appreciate how special this place is. It's a place that is unknown to many Australians. It's a place where wildlife including whales and dolphins, turtles, sharks, tuna, fish in their abundance, hundreds of species of coral are found. It really is a very special place.

CONOR DUFFY: The Federal Government has called for expressions of interest in oil and gas projects just three nautical miles from the reef.

On the department's website the pink lease area is broken up by three small circles that denote the marine parks of the reef.

Companies have to submit their bids by tomorrow. Development could include seismic activity and drilling. Paul Gamblin says that heavy work couldn't coexist with a fragile reef.

PAUL GAMBLIN: Look we believe that it's a really important moment in Australia's marine conservation history and this is a moment for Australia, for the Australian Government, to get the balance right. It's opened up huge areas to the oil and gas sector.

CONOR DUFFY: The Minister for Resources Martin Ferguson was unavailable for interview.

In a statement he says the ecological value of the reef and the fact part of the potential lease area is being considered for a marine reserve was noted in the acreage release.

EXTRACT FROM MARTIN FERGUSON'S STATEMENT: Any successful bidder will have to have an environmental plan assessed by regulators prior to undertaking any seismic or drilling activity. The legislation requires a comprehensive assessment of all significant impacts on matters of national and environmental significance.

CONOR DUFFY: But Paul Gamblin says history shows that after the initial expression of interest projects often proceed quickly.

PAUL GAMBLIN: If the Government proceeds with the release of this acreage and if the oil and gas sector believes it can reconcile its commitments to look after the environment with drilling so close to an environment like this, it could be within months that we'll see oil rigs right off the Rowley Shoals.

ELEANOR HALL: Paul Gamblin from the World Wildlife Fund with Conor Duffy.

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