“Following a period of detailed consideration the Government has today released the Report of the Montara Commission of Inquiry and a draft Government response”
says this week’s press release from the office of Martin Ferguson, Australian Minister for Resources and Energy.
“… the impact on the marine environment was minimal. … We can’t just turn our backs on this industry — it is too important to Australia’s economic and energy security.”
And so it begins. The next stage of our struggle to have the Government of Australia reconise the threats that the oil and gas indusry pose to whales and dolphins.
The Montara (Timor Sea) oil spill was amongst the worst in Australia’s history, with what the industry euphemistically call “an uncontrolled release of oil, gas and condensate” between August 21 - November 3 2009 within the Australian waters of the Timor Sea.
Despite early statements by the then Minister for Environment, Peter Garrett, that the spill would have negligible impact, they eventually admitted that their previous estimations of impact may have been undercooked, and that plans, technologies and processes companies must have place to respond to this type of spill are now subject to greater scrutiny. To their credit, the Government did establish the Montara Commission of Inquiry to investigate and identify the circumstances of the spill and to assess and report on the environmental impacts. However, they didn’t move to this position without a push from the Greens.
They also bowed to pressure and developed an environmental monitoring programme [PDF], with early input from AIMS, CSIRO and relevant state and territory agencies, but only after significant lobbying from the scientific and the conservation community to establish a robust and independent monitoring programme that stretched over a few decades.
Perhaps to keep the ramifications at arm’s length, the Government put the fox in charge of the henhouse, giving the company at the heart of the spill — PTTEP AA — sole responsibility of funding the execution of the environmental monitoring programme work, with no commitment that the Government would seek other avenues should the company cease to exist. Only time will tell if the programme lasts more than a few years.
To compare, the US government’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by BP is for the US National Science Foundation and other government agencies to invest substantial new sums in on-going research, along with US$500m to be provided by BP for independent researchers to study long-term effects of the oil spill.
Still, time is moving on. With the release of the Inquiry report this week, we also have reports of four of the seven scientific monitoring studies to consider, and notification that major areas will be missing from the research. Despite clear scientific advice that the impacts to marine mammals would stretch decades and not likely result the immediate death of animals during the spill, the ‘Marine Megafauna Assessment Survey’ has not been triggered because no bodies were found at the time of the spill. Therefore, the long-term environmental monitoring programme will further examine the impacts of the oil spill on birds, sea snakes and turtles, but not marine mammals.
At the time that the Inquiry was being established, WDCS made it clear that at least 20 different species of whales and dolphins probably use the area, including sperm whales, common dolphins, pygmy blues and humpback whales. During the spill, a whale survey recorded humpback whales south west of the spill area, while another independent survey looked at the impact of the spill sighted dolphins close to the slick. We know that the animals were present at the time.
We also know that whales and dolphins use their blubber layer for insulation and so are not affected in this way, but ingestion and inhalation may occur when animals are in close or direct contact with a spill. The large baleen whales can suffer from oiling of their baleen. Ingestion through prey and damage to the food web are also possibilities.
“Crude and other oils are mixtures of a great many organic compounds many of which are toxic, and animals can ingest oil-derived compounds either directly from the water or with their food. Poisonous vapours can also be inhaled and especially as the more volatile components evaporate into the air from freshly spilled oil” WDCS's Mark Simmonds, said at the time of the spill.“Regrettably, whales and dolphins are unlikely to avoid oils spills and the more extensive the spill, the greater the encounter rate is likely to be. There will also be chronic effects of oil entering food-chains. Much of this is going to happen far away from the human eye and if whales or dolphins are killed or otherwise affected, we are unlikely to be witness to this. All of this further explains the need to keep fossil fuel plants out of important wildlife areas.”
The significance of both the Inquiry and the monitoring studies dropping whales and dolphin from consideration is important because any evidence of impacts to whales, dolphins and sea turtles will trigger further restrictions on this industry under Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It is therefore not a surprise to scan the list of witnesses called to the Inquiry’s public hearings and see that Inquiry only heard evidence on the cause of the blowout and the roles and responsibilities of individuals and agencies surrounding the regulation of the industry. No independent environmental evidence was called. And, despite assurances by the Inquiry, there was no promised “consultation with those parties that provided information on such [environmental] matters”.
The PTTEP AA spokesman has said this week that that scientific evidence and studies had shown that the spill caused minimal damage and was “relatively concentrated …” although added they will “… subscribe to whatever findings come out of [the] report”.
So here is this crux of the problem we now face. Environmental considerations were effectively dropped from the official Inquiry investigation and replaced with government statements about impact and a PTTEP AA funded environmental monitoring programme [PDF], which is already stumbling.
Given the year that has followed, with the devastation of the Gulf Oil Spill reminding us that this threat is ever present, it is a little surprising that the Australian government still feels it should protect this industry from objective assessment of their cradle-to-grave impacts. But it obviously does.