12/11/2009 - 00:00

Leak plugged, broad inquiry to follow

12/11/2009 - 00:00


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THERE was a huge sigh of relief in political circles last week when Thai oil company PTTEP finally brought under control a leak in the Timor Sea.

THERE was a huge sigh of relief in political circles last week when Thai oil company PTTEP finally brought under control a leak in the Timor Sea.

After an extraordinary 10 weeks, the well was finally plugged, stopping an estimated 400 barrels a day from escaping. At least that was the figure provided.

Probably due to its remote location, the incident received relatively modest headline coverage during most of the period of leakage. But the duration of the spill and recent dramatic escalation, when the West Atlas rig burst into flames, was starting to make the situation at the Montara oilfield pretty uncomfortable for a lot of people.

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett had previously called for the federal government to intervene and was clearly frustrated by the whole issue occurring off our coastline.

Mr Barnett wants to build an LNG plant on the coast at James Price Point, north of Broome. Opponents of the plan include conservationists, who claim the area is frequented by whales, and will now have been handed further ammunition by the oil spill.

The oil spill also led to a call for marine parks need to be created off the Kimberley coast.

“What we need to do is ensure that a network of marine sanctuary areas is put in place ... to ensure the species that exist up there are protected from the impacts of this extremely dangerous industry,” Conservation Council of WA director Piers Verstegen said.

Mr Verstegen warned that, although the leak had been fixed, its effect on the environment would last for years.

“Once you release that much oil and pollution and toxicity into the environment, really the threat ... continues for a long time,” he said.

“We need that to be monitored to ensure that the company actually pays for the impact of that damage, but most importantly we need to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”

The federal government has been fairly muted throughout the whole West Atlas incident and while Environment Minister Peter Garrett is known to be looking at marine sanctuaries in the area, any such move is unlikely to be too drastic as offshore oil production is big earner for the Commonwealth.

Instead, the federal government has opted to do what all governments do when they need to time to work out their policy options – it called an inquiry.

Former senior public servant David Borthwick will head the inquiry, which will have powers equivalent to a royal commission and be able to summon witnesses, take evidence on oath and require individuals and corporations to hand over relevant documents.

“The powers I’ve been given, as I understand it, do enable me to bring forward evidence that might otherwise be reluctantly given,” Mr Borthwick told reporters in Canberra last week.

In announcing the inquiry, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson insisted it would be at arm’s length from government.

“The inquiry and the commissioner possess the powers and authority of a royal commission,” he told reporters.

“We aspire to learn from this incident and take any necessary steps to stop similar incidents occurring in the future.”

The inquiry will receive public submissions and the commissioner “will determine further details of how the inquiry will be conducted”.

Mr Borthwick will be able to appoint experts to help him investigate what the resources minister called “the uncontrolled release of oil and gas”.

The terms of reference include: the cause of the spill; whether the regulatory regime governing the oil drilling operation was adequate; the performance of relevant people acting under that regime; the adequacy of the response; and the environmental impact of the spill.

Mr Borthwick said he was determined to get to the bottom of the incident.

“That’s why I’m going to release an issues paper, I’m going to call for submissions, I’m going to insist that those submissions be made public,” he said.

Boat diplomacy

PREMIER Colin Barnett weighed into the national debate over immigration, suggesting that it was internationally embarrassing to have 78 Sri Lankans stuck on the Australian ship, Oceanic Viking.

Mr Barnett suggested the stand-off should be ended by taking the Sri Lankans to Christmas Island, which has detention facilities.

The issue has been the first big hurdle for Kevin Rudd’s government, which has been confronted by increasing numbers of boat people and an inability to find a simple solution. Polls on the government’s handling of the matter have given the opposition some heart.

In response the rising tide of criticism, the federal government has put one of its top diplomats on the task.

“I’m dispatching John McCarthy, one of our most experienced senior diplomats, as our special envoy to Sri Lanka to deal with a range of these challenges in the future,” Mr Rudd said.

Mr McCarthy has held numerous senior ambassadorial postings, including many of the countries seen at the top of the pecking order for Australian bilateral relations.

He was ambassador to the US from 1995 to 1997, then ambassador to Indonesia until 2001 (during which time East Timor became independent) and ambassador to Japan until 2004, when he was appointed high commissioner to India.

Rising tide

MR Barnett wasn’t the only voice wanting to be heard on the big issues.

With climate change very much part of the national agenda, state opposition climate change spokesperson and federal seat hopeful, Alannah MacTiernan, sounded off on Western Australia’s lack of planning on the issue of rising sea levels.

The backdrop to Ms MacTiernan’s concern was talk of preventing construction near the coast as the potential cost of damage from rising seas became a subject of public debate.

The release of data that showed sea levels rising in Australia at about one third the rate of global averages may have quietened things down temporarily, but Ms MacTiernan noted that the same research showed WA’s coastline had experienced much bigger rises than the rest of the country.

Ms MacTiernan said recent figures show that Perth seas have been rising at 8.6mm per year over the past 18 years .The figure for the Kimberley coast is 8.1mm.

“This is more than twice the global sea level rise of 3.3mm per annum. It is more than four times the rise being experienced on Australia’s east coast,” Ms MacTiernan said.

Bureau of Meteorology National Tidal Centre has collected the data since 1991.

“Western Australia’s current planning policies are based on sea level rises roughly in line with global projections,” she said.

“This clearly will not be adequate to protect housing and infrastructure on the coast and in estuaries over the next thirty years.

“WA is the state that will be most vulnerable to increased sea levels expected as a result of global warming – yet we are the state that is showing the least interest in reducing our carbon emissions.

“At the very least we need to get on with a plan to protect existing housing and infrastructure and to redraw regulations on new development. It is likely we will need to increase coastal setbacks and require more fill for construction on low lying land.”

Southern comfort

THE politicians and media trooped down to Ravensthorpe for an announcement many hope will offer some redemption for the mining community in the region, after BHP Billiton pulled the plug on its fledgling nickel project.

Colin Barnett went down to help Galaxy Resources kick off construction at its $68 million Mt Cattlin spodumene project near Ravensthorpe after it secured mining approval from the state government.

Galaxy’s enthusiastic managing director, Iggy Tan, hit all the right buttons with this PR opportunity – talking about a positive from the approvals process, big international markets for his product and local employment.

Mr Tan said the approval from the Department of Mines and Petroleum marked the final stage of pre-development for the project.

“With Mining Approval and full funding in place we look forward to having the Mt Cattlin mine up and running by the third quarter of 2010,” Mr Tan said.

“The project will employ a residential workforce of approximately 70 to 100 people.”

Training saved

IT seems like an odd time to pull the rug out from under training in the Pilbara.

The state’s peak business lobby group, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA, reiterated its concerns that action is needed by governments to ensure the local economy is ready for the opportunities headed its way.

“We need to develop a human capital strategy to ensure the state can attract and retain the hundreds of thousands of extra workers local business will need in the years ahead,” CCIWA CEO James Pearson said.

“CCI looks forward to working with political leaders and key decision makers from across the country to develop sound and sensible policies that will encourage economic growth, attract new investment, and create jobs for all.”

Yet the state government was forced to take over funding of the Australian Technical College in the Pilbara from the federal government last week because Canberra will not renew an act covering the operation of the college.

Training Minister Peter Collier announced the state would assume responsibility for the operations of the college to allow it to remain open.

“This situation has occurred because the Federal Government Act covering the operation of the Pilbara ATC will cease at the end of the year, which means the college could not receive more funding,” he said.

The college caters for year 11 or year 12 students who want to begin a trade apprenticeship.



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