Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


Montara Oil Spill

7:22 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to talk about an issue that I have not talked about for some time in this chamber—that is, the impact of the Montara oil spill.

Last month I visited East Nusa Tenggara, West Timor, to meet with officials, with fishers, with community members and with seaweed farmers. It looks like the Montara oil spill has had a significant impact on those communities—and I will go into that shortly. But, before I do, I would like to remind us about where this started—and that was on 21 August 2009, when the Montara wellhead exploded in the Australian waters of the Timor Sea and spilt thousands and thousands of litres of oil into the ocean. How much oil, we do not know, because it was never officially measured.

That oil gushed unchecked until 3 November, for 74 days. The oil was carried quite long distances by the currents and the sheen upon the ocean, at various times, affected areas as large as 90,000 square kilometres. It was the largest offshore oil platform spill in Australia's history and AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, used dispersants on the oil—184,135 litres of dispersants, they said at estimates. Some of those dispersants, such as Corexit 9527A and 9500A, that were used have subsequently been shown to be much more highly toxic than people had thought. They have been linked to damage to human and marine life and with severe health consequences. Those dispersants were also used in the deep-water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Just to remind the chamber: in 2010 the report of the Montara Commission of Inquiry, established by the Australian government, found that the way the company responsible, PTTEP Australasia, operated the Montara oilfield:

… did not come within a 'bull's roar' of sensible oilfield practice.

The Blowout was not a reflection of one unfortunate incident, or of bad luck.

What happened … was an accident waiting to happen …

PTTEP have subsequently been fined and have had to put in place an action plan to address the bad and poor practices that resulted in this spill. In fact, the previous government significantly amended the oil and gas regulations in Australia. I will remind the chamber that the Northern Territory government at that time was responsible for the regulation and the inquiry also found very poor management of the regulatory process, and that has also changed.

At the time it was established that the oil spill did go into Indonesian waters. At first there was some dispute with the company about whether that had in fact happened. Fortunately, satellite imagery—not provided by the government or the company but by SkyTruth—clearly established that. The local community in Nusa Tenggara also provided some oil samples, which I then provided to the commission of inquiry, and it was established that oil that had gone into Indonesian waters was in fact oil from the Montara oil spill.

What was not tracked, nor I think understood at the time, is that the use of the dispersants with the oil creates was they call a mousse—it changes the particles and, for a start, drops them off the surface into the water profile but also apparently creates a mousse that causes the spread of the oil and the damage much further. I did speak about this in the chamber on several occasions: at the time, the people of Roti and of East Nusa Tenggara also highlighted that they were extremely concerned about the impact of the oil spill not only on fishers, who are legally allowed to fish in the area that was affected by the oil, but also on seaweed farms.

The Australian government worked with the company to ensure that there were studies done in Australian waters. Unfortunately, there were no studies done in Indonesian waters—so we have no understanding of what impact this spill had on Indonesian waters, on the fish stocks in Indonesian waters, on Roti and on East Nusa Tenggara. I was invited to speak at a seminar two weeks ago in West Timor, which I very fortunately was able to attend. At that time I also met with communities. I went to a community called Tablolong, where 800 concerned community members came to a public meeting. It was held in a church, and in fact there were many people outside. I got to hear their accounts of what has happened to them and the impact that has been felt by their communities.

Some of the communities have fairly recently gone into seaweed farming as a way of earning income. I heard how their production had fallen very significantly from, for example in the village where I met the community, 500 tonnes production of seaweed to 10 tonnes. I heard from the regional fisheries officer how production of fish had gone from what was originally around 180,000 tonnes down to 70,000 tonnes. I heard from the fishers how red snapper, lobster and sardines could not be fished—they could not catch those—and in fact have had to change their fishing grounds. Instead of having to travel two days to their fishing grounds they now have to take up to seven days. I heard how the number of fishing boats had reduced significantly in many of these villages, from hundreds to less than a hundred. I heard how fishers had lost their jobs because they could no longer fish. What has happened is that the production has dropped right off. There is now a scaly disease on the seaweed farms, and people are no longer able to make their livelihoods from seaweed farming.

As I have articulated, fishers are no longer able to fish. You could tell that Tablolong, the village in which we had the public meeting, was once a very prosperous village because of seaweed farming. Other villages as well were very prosperous. You could see they were in decline because they could no longer either fish or farm seaweed.

We do not know if the Montara oil spill and the dispersants have caused this damage. We do not know whether the mousse I was talking about, or the dispersants, or the oil, has impacted on these villages—on their fishing and on their seaweed farms. But we owe it to these communities to have a look. The message of the communities to me was to please ask the Australian government to take some leadership here. Please ask them to require a study to be undertaken. I believe it is incumbent upon the Australian government to take that leadership, because it resulted from failures in our regulatory practice, and gross failures on the company's part. Therefore, the company has a responsibility. But if they are not going to take up their responsibilities we need leadership by the Australian government to require a study on what the impacts are.

I heard from experts at the seminar I attended that you could do the studies and establish whether the oil and dispersants have had an impact. Using particular markers you can see whether they are still in the marine environment and still in the sediments and have had an impact. We owe it to those communities to carry out these studies. I urge the Australian government to take some leadership here and I desperately urge the company, PTTEP Australasia, to please talk to these fishers and put money into a study to establish what has really happened to these villages.