Monday, June 18, 2012

The Kimberley's Commonwealth Marine Parks

Opinion Piece: Richard Costin, Broome

Tony Burke’s announcement of the establishment of a comprehensive network of Commonwealth Marine Parks around the Australian coast should help to still international criticism over the establishment of industrial ports in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and limit the destruction of sensitive marine areas by industrial demersal trawling around the coast. 

The Great Barrier Reef has become the focal point of his plan with huge areas of the Coral Sea to be protected by a new Commonwealth Marine National Park. The scale of the proposed park in Queensland has captured the attention of the nation, and should provide real protection for the area by excluding the oil and gas industry and demersal trawling fleets.

On the other side of the country, in the resource rich waters of the Pilbara and Kimberley coast, a completely different story is unfolding. The proposed Commonwealth Marine Parks in this area may soon become the new greenwash for the offshore oil and gas industry.

Under the new proposal, around 255,000km2 of the Pilbara and Kimberley coast are to be protected by a series of marine national parks and multiple use zones. These areas have also become the new frontier for the multi-billion dollar oil and gas industry.

Clear contradictions have emerged where the oil and gas industry will be allowed to operate in approximately 95% of these marine parks.

According to the guidelines set out in the northwest Bioregional Plan, one of the key objectives of the marine park is to take a precautionary approach to protecting the conservation values of these reserves which should also have the capacity to mitigate identified threats to these values. A careful examination of the zoning and IUCN classifications for the proposed parks highlights these contradictions. The IUCN ll category, Marine National Parks, is designed to provide the highest level of protection for the conservation values in the region and does not allow for oil and gas exploration and development. Multiple use zones, IUCN Vl, allow for a range of existing activities to continue within the reserve, but will exclude activities that carry a high risk to the conservation values of the marine parks.

So should heavy industrial oil and gas development be considered as a high or low risk activity? The growing list of oil spill disasters around the world such as Montara, in the Kimberley, and the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico clearly demonstrate that these are high risk activities.

Every Australian is fully aware of the dangers posed by the offshore oil and gas industry, so why should Tony Burke by confused by what constitutes a high or low risk activity? The proposal to allow oil and gas exploration and development in the new Commonwealth Marine Parks in the Kimberley and Pilbara, should be questioned. The assurances of the Federal Resource minister Martin Ferguson and the oil and gas industry that these activities are safe, have a hollow ring to them. There is no way they can guarantee that there will not be another major oil spill on the Kimberley coast.

The oil and gas industry is ramping up its activities in Kimberley waters and is now pressuring the Federal government to streamline the approvals process. Under the zoning conditions for the multiple use zones, petroleum exploration and development areas that have been released before the declaration of the marine reserves will be allowed to continue operations. This applies to most of the proposed commonwealth marine reserves in the Pilbara and Kimberley.

If new legislation is enacted that guarantees access for the oil and gas industry to Commonwealth Marine Parks, as a condition of the zoning, this may provide a rubber stamp that removes the requirement for each operation to be carefully scrutinized under the EPBC Act.

Despite this development cloud hanging over the Kimberley coast, there are a number of bright spots on the horizon. The proposed Kimberley Marine National Park, which covers an area of around 7905 km2, which when combined with the new whale conservation area in the Camden Sound Marine Park, will increase the area of protection for migrating Humpback whales to around 15% of their Kimberley calving grounds. However, this marine park does not extend south along the Dampier Peninsula to Broome which is one of the main congregation area for migrating Humpback whales. The iconic Broome coastal region will have no protection and may be left open for the establishment of the James Price Point industrial precinct.

The proposed Kimberley Marine Park will be the only reserve to exclude both demersal trawling and oil and gas development. This represents around 3% of the proposed commonwealth Pilbara and Kimberley Marine Reserves. The rest will be open for oil and gas exploration and development.

Many questions need to be asked. Are the environmental standards that apply to the offshore oil and gas industry rigorous enough to protect the australian coast from major pollution? How will the management of the parks be funded? Will these management costs become part of the mining offset package to boost the environmental credentials of the oil and gas companies that operate in these marine parks or will they be independently funded and managed by the Australian people? Will the new marine/industrial parks in the Pilbara and the Kimberley protect the unique conservation values in the regions, or will they serve the interests of the offshore oil and gas industry? Are these developments good for Australia?

Tony Burke has a wonderful opportunity to put in place some real protection for the Australian coast. Let’s hope he has the courage to deliver world class marine parks for the Australian people.

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