Australian oil spill whitewash

This video from Australia is about the oil spill from a leaking oil rig off the West Australian coast in a whale migration route since August.

By Mike Head in Australia:

Australian government covers up causes of Montara oil spill

30 December 2010

The Gillard government has sought to shield itself, and the rapidly growing offshore oil and gas industry in Australia, from the fallout from last year’s 74-day spill at the Montara wellhead platform, 250 km off the country’s northwest coast. Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson last month released the report of an official inquiry that confined blame for the disaster to the Thai-owned company that operated the well, and the Northern Territory (NT) regulator that Ferguson had placed in charge of monitoring safety in the offshore oil and gas field.

According to the inquiry’s findings, the Thai conglomerate PTTEP systematically violated elementary safety standards. Its “systems and processes were so deficient” that the blowout was “an accident waiting to happen”. As for the designated regulator, the Northern Territory Department of Resources, it adopted a minimalist “tick and flick” and “no questions asked” approach that “gave it little chance of discovering PTTEP’s poor practices”.

Nevertheless, the inquiry, and the government, concluded that these were simply faults of one company and one agency, effectively whitewashing the cost-cutting, profit-driven character of the entire industry, the de-regulation regime introduced over the past 20 years, and the Labor government’s efforts to rapidly expand an industry that last year generated $35.6 billion in revenue for the energy conglomerates.

Ferguson delayed releasing the report, which he received in June, for five months in order to bury the issue during the August federal election. He was also concerned to distance its publication as far as possible from this year’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. When the findings were eventually made public, he used them to reject demands for a moratorium on the opening up of new areas of the Australian-controlled seabed for exploration and drilling.

The energy minister acknowledged that the Deepwater Horizon disaster had highlighted safety and environmental concerns, but declared that “shutting down the industry and putting the nation’s energy security, jobs and the economy at risk” would do nothing to enhance safety. Ferguson claimed that the establishment of a national regulator—to be named the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) would “restore the Australian community’s confidence” in the regulation of the industry.

In reality, all the circumstances surrounding the Montara blowout and the government’s response indicate that the lives of drill workers, the well-being of fishing and other communities in Australia and neighbouring Indonesia, and the health of the marine environment, are to be put at ever greater risk.

The Montara blowout lasted for 74 days, from August 21 to November 3, 2009. It took five attempts to plug the leak by drilling a new connection that intercepted the well casing, some 2.6 km below the seabed, and then pumping in mud. Before the fifth attempt succeeded, a three-day fire broke out on the platform, highlighting the danger that had existed for the 65 workers who were evacuated from the rig when the leak initially erupted.

Throughout the disaster, Ferguson and then environment minister, Peter Garrett, downplayed the size of the spill and the environmental fallout. They cited PTTEP’s unsubstantiated claims that about 300 to 400 barrels of oil were leaking daily. The commission of inquiry, conducted by former senior public servant David Borthwick, estimated a spill of as much as 1,500 barrels a day and a slick that extended up to 90,000 square kilometres, and into Indonesian waters near West Timor, where the oil contaminated fishing and seaweed farming areas.

Borthwick concluded that the environmental monitoring of the spill was so poor that: “It is unlikely that the full impact of the blowout will ever be known. This reflects the vast and remote area affected by the spill; the absence of solid reliable baseline data on species and ecosystems, and the slow response in putting together a monitoring plan.”

The inquiry found that the immediate source of the blowout was the failure of the primary well control barrier, a cemented shoe casing, and that the causes of the spill were systemic. Not one well control barrier on the H1 Well had complied with the company’s own standards; the cement casing had not been pressure-tested, despite major problems in installing it; and only one of the two required secondary well barriers was ever installed. Despite being advised of this highly dangerous situation, PTTEP ordered drilling to proceed.

None of PTTEP’s five wells at the Montara oilfield had proper safety controls. Borthwick rejected the company’s insistence that it “did not cut corners or seek to minimise costs where this might compromise safety or well integrity,” saying “this claim does not bear scrutiny”. He concluded that PTTEP’s operation did not come within a “bull’s roar” of “sensible oilfield practice”, adding that the company regarded the regulator as a “soft touch”.

Under the Offshore Petroleum Act the federal government was the regulator of the oil and gas fields across the Timor Sea. Ferguson, however, had delegated responsibility to the small NT resources department, allocating it just $2 million a year for the task. Borthwick reported that the NT department had only one technically qualified official and “does not conduct on-site inspections”. In any case, under the Labor government’s 2009 regulations, the maximum penalty for unsafe operating was just $8,800.

The NT agency’s “hands off” approach was entirely in line with the de-regulation agenda that has increasingly been implemented by both Labor and Liberal governments over recent years. Borthwick referred to a “move away from prescriptive regulation toward objective-based regulation, leaving it to the owner/operator to determine how good oilfield practice is to be applied”.

Nevertheless, the report did not recommend a return to prescriptive regulation, asserting that this would be “unnecessarily complicated”, “obscure” and likely to “unduly stifle innovation and new technologies”. While Borthwick recommended higher penalties and the introduction of a “polluter-pays” principle for clean-up costs, this regime would still leave the door wide open for profit-driven cost-cutting in the guise of “innovation”.

In fact, Ferguson’s proposal for a national regulator is substantially derived from a previous Productivity Commission report, published in the same month as the Montara blowout. In Borthwick’s words that report “focused on removing unnecessary burdens on the sector”. He said such an agency would provide operators with a “one-stop-shop” for all environmental and workplace safety licences.

Obviously briefed in advance, the oil industry umbrella group, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), immediately welcomed the report and the government’s response. APPEA chief executive Belinda Robinson noted that the proposed single regulator was in line with the Productivity Commission’s review.

To deflect attention from the underlying issues, Ferguson announced a further investigation to determine whether to cancel PTTEP’s five oil and gas production licenses. The minister insisted that the industry did not have a “cowboy culture”, and falsely claimed that Montara had been the first major leak in Australian waters in 25 years, during which time more than 3,000 wells had been drilled.

In reality, in 1998, there were fatal explosions at the Longford natural gas plant in the Bass Strait, on Australia’s southern shore, operated by Esso Australia, a subsidiary of Exxon. Esso was eventually found guilty of breaching safety laws over the blasts, which killed two workers, Peter Wilson and John Lowerty, and injured another eight, as well as cutting gas supplies to more than a million homes and businesses for two weeks.

A jury convicted Esso on 11 occupational health and safety charge, including failure to identify hazards, assess risks, monitor dangerous conditions, and provide crisis shutdown devices. Under the de-regulation regime in place, Esso was largely responsible for running its own safety checks. WorkCover Victoria, the government agency responsible for carrying out safety audits, had been downsized to such an extent that inspections and risk assessments had been severely curtailed.

The Gillard government’s response has been driven by its determination to expand the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry as quickly as possible, providing a bonanza for giant corporations, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell, that have projects underway off the north-west coast. Ferguson last year estimated Australia’s gas reserves at $1 trillion and forecast that LNG exports would total $24 billion by 2017-18, nearly doubling over a decade. The Labor government’s whitewash of the potentially fatal Montara disaster will only ensure that the major operators will continue to put industry workers, nearby populations and the natural environment at great risk in the pursuit of ever-greater profits.

The Great Australian Bight Marine Park & offshore oil drilling: here.

Green group wants Ningaloo drilling bid axed – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): here.

For the past week, 60 Aboriginal protesters from the Broome region have been taking part in a sit/lie-in to prevent bulldozers from destroying the unique James Price Point area for a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) precinct: here.

Australia’s Ningaloo coast added to Unesco’s World Heritage List: here.

USA: NOAA today unveiled a web archive of the maps, wildlife reports, scientific reports and other previously released public information used by emergency responders, fishermen, mariners and local officials during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The NOAA Deepwater Horizon Library can be accessed via

Reminder for birders everywhere: Keep an eye out for specially colored banded birds from Gulf oil spill: here.

BP oil disaster’s effects will ‘go global,’ Gulf Coast activist warns: here.

Oil in Iraq: here.

Pennsylvania allows gas drillers to dump pollution into drinking water supplies: here.

(World Wildlife Fund) Sakhalin Energy Investment Company — part owned by Shell — has announced plans to build a major oil platform near crucial feeding habitat of the Western North Pacific gray whale population. Only around 130 whales of the critically endangered Western population exist today, and their primary feeding habitat — off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East — is already besieged by multiple oil and gas exploration and development projects: here.

7 thoughts on “Australian oil spill whitewash

  1. So pleased someone else is raising these issues, the Montara Report is a complete joke, and i do not see any attempts to undertake or implement any of the 100 recommendations. Most of the Oil& gas industrialized landscape pollute the are located off the Western Australian coast and Barnett will not play ball when it comes to any of these recommendations. To follow the story of a small community of Broome in WA fight to save their environment, social wellbeing and retain their culturally identity please view
    Woodside and all their joint ventures Shell, BP Exxon are planning to build the world’s largest LNG refineries in the world in our recreational area. Join the Campaign to Save the Kimberley, one the last remaining wilderness on the planet.


  2. Hi Redhanded, thanks for your interesting comment and link (you can make links clickable in comments with HTML by the way).

    I have looked at the Australian Greens site about the Montara report, but did not find anything (maybe there is, I could not find their Search function). Green Left Weekly also did not have anything on the recent report.


  3. Oil platforms shut over safety fears

    ENERGY: Oil giant Shell said today it did not yet know when operations would resume on four of its North Sea platforms after they were suspended following an incident at the weekend.

    A protective fender, thought to weigh around 25 tonnes, fell off the Brent Bravo installation into the sea on Saturday.

    RMT union official Jake Molloy said: “We believe this is a responsible move by the operator, ensuring as it does the safety of all workers in the field in the event of any serious damage on the sea bed.”


  4. No guarantees on Ningaloo drilling: Shell

    AAP March 16, 2011, 6:50 am

    Shell won t make guarantees on drilling off Ningaloo

    The West Australian ©

    Shell chief executive Peter Voser says the petroleum giant can’t guarantee there won’t be any environmental damage caused by drilling near the world-renowned Ningaloo Reef.

    Royal Dutch Shell has applied for Australian government approval for 60 days’ exploration for oil and gas about 50km west of the boundary of the Ningaloo marine park.

    Environmental groups have slammed Shell’s plans, arguing the risk of an oil spill is too great for the world heritage nominated site.

    Long-running oil spills off WA’s northern coastline and the Gulf of Mexico in the past two years have highlighted the possible dangers for the ocean paradise and migration route for whales, dolphins, turtles and whale sharks.

    About half a dozen oil and gas operations already exist within the greater Ningaloo area, some just 20km from the marine park, and with others in production.

    Following a media briefing in London overnight, Mr Voser said the devastating tsunami that swamped Japan last week showed that making guarantees wasn’t wise.

    “You can never do that,” he told AAP.

    “It is quite clear, you buy a car and you don’t get a guarantee that you will not have an accident at one stage.

    “You cannot do that.

    “What we can do is over time demonstrate what standards we have and also we are not normally cutting it short in terms of what we invest.

    “We do build things to last as I say, forever, and should survive earthquake or whatever you have.

    “We are used to building things in constant ice in the Arctic etc, in the Gulf of Mexico with lots of hurricanes.”

    “… you can never rule out an incident that is quite clear but you can minimise it.”

    Shell has said that it was more likely to discover gas rather than oil deposits during its exploration.

    Its modelling has suggested that tidal movements and water currents would cause a potential oil spill to travel away or parallel to the reef.

    Federal Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson says he is determined to set up a single national offshore regulator despite the strong opposition coming from the State Government.

    Mr Ferguson has foreshadowed increasingly rigorous requirements for Shell’s plans with Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke being responsible for the decision on environmental grounds.

    If successful, Shell must then convince the WA government.

    Mr Voser believed Shell’s reputation would aid its bid for approval.

    “I think our reputation as a safe, reliable partner has gone up around the world and that does help with the discussions we have with governments,” he said.
    WA Premier Colin Barnett last week said any drilling near Ningaloo would compromise the campaign for Ningaloo to be world heritage listed.


  5. Pingback: Big Oil threatens Bahraini coral reefs | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  6. Pingback: New Australian marine parks, progress, but not enough | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  7. Pingback: Rare whale beaches in Australia | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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