Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

AUSTRALIA: Marine Biodiversity Threatened by Oil, Gas Exploration

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Jul 29 2010 (IPS) - In early July, whales from the world’s largest population of humpbacks began arriving in the warm, subtropical waters off Australia’s north-west coast to breed and nurse their young.

From May each year, some 22,000 humpbacks make the pilgrimage up Australia’s west coast from their Antarctic feeding grounds before beginning the return journey in September.

The whales, which usually grow to between 12 and 16 metres when mature, constitute just a tiny fraction of the wide variety of life supported by Australia’s marine ecosystem, considered to be the most biologically diverse on the planet.

But in recent months, environmentalists around Australia have been expressing concern that the marine environment is largely unprotected from threats like overfishing and the exploration and production of oil and gas.

While the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard is aiming to have a system of marine reserves in place by 2012, less than five percent of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone is currently protected.

For the Aug. 21 general election, green groups are calling on the two major parties, Gillard’s Australian Labor Party and the conservative opposition coalition, to commit to establishing an extensive network of large marine parks immediately in order to safeguard the humpback whales’ breeding grounds and other important marine environments.

“Numerous scientific and economic reports have demonstrated that a network of marine sanctuaries will protect marine life, help to make fisheries sustainable and bring long-term economic benefits,” said Piers Verstegen, director of the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA), the state’s peak environment organisation, on Jul.17.

In October 2009, Western Australia’s leader, Premier Colin Barnett, announced that his state government intended to declare the humpbacks’ breeding area “a (protected) marine park”. But action has yet to be taken on this.

“There has been delay after delay and everything we are hearing is that protective measures within the park are being watered down,” said the Wilderness Society’s Peter Robertson.

“There is every indication that commercial fishing will continue throughout the marine park, putting marine life at risk,” he added.

Of additional concern to environmental groups is the federal government’s continued release of offshore areas for oil and gas exploration. In May, Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson announced the release of 31 marine areas across five submarine basins for petroleum exploration.

Twenty-six of these areas are in waters off Western Australia.

“These are primarily in deep water and as we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico, the industry is completely ill-equipped to deal with deepwater oil spills and oil blowouts,” the CCWA’s Tim Nicol told IPS.

Described by U.S. President Barack Obama as an “unprecedented” environmental disaster, an April explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig – owned by oil giant British Petroleum – in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and led to the uncontrolled leaking of millions of barrels of oil into the sea.

While the flow of oil appears to have been halted, concerns remain over the short and long-term environmental consequences of the massive spill.

Australia has not been without its own spills. Following a blowout at the Montara wellhead platform in the Timor Sea off Western Australia’s northern coast in August 2009, oil and gas leaked for some 74 days before being plugged.

The Australian Greens party and World Wildlife Fund- Australia say the spill was worse than the government has hitherto admitted.

Martin Ferguson, the resources minister, commissioned an inquiry into the incident – the report of which he received on Jun.18 – but remains tight-lipped on the subject. A ministerial official contacted by IPS would give no indication as to when the report will be publicly released.

One of the zones made available for exploration is located at the Mentelle Basin off Western Australia’s south- west coast, some 70 kilometres from Margaret River, which boasts clear water and pristine beaches. The Margaret River region, a few hours’ drive south of the state capital Perth, is also a renowned wine-growing region.

Environmentalists warn that any oil or gas leaks in the Mentelle Basin would likely have a disastrous effect on the local economy, similar to what has occurred along areas of the United States’ coast.

And like the Gulf of Mexico spill, local marine life would also suffer. The Mentelle Basin is in “an area of important deepwater habitat,” according to Nicol. “It’s the area where the southern right whales and humpback whales and even blue whales migrate through every year.”

But the government has so far rejected calls for a moratorium on the release of acreage for petroleum exploration. Ferguson said that stopping the process would “do nothing to improve industry safety.”

“All petroleum exploration and development activities are subject to stringent environmental standards, approvals and reporting requirements set out in petroleum-specific environmental legislation,” said the minister when the acreage release was announced.

Ferguson has also linked oil and gas exploration to Australia’s energy security, a point supported by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), the industry’s peak representative body.

“Australia’s oil production peaked ten years ago. From meeting nearly 100 percent of Australia’s needs in 2000, we have fallen (to) just over 55 percent in 2010. And without major new discoveries, it’s anticipated to be just 32 percent by 2017,” said APPEA’s chief executive Belinda Robinson.

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