Australian Government under fire over exploration leases near reefs

Rowley Shoals is a world-class diving spot and home to spectacular marine life.
PHOTO

Rowley Shoals is a world-class diving spot and home to spectacular marine life.

Last Updated: Wed, 11 Apr 2012 16:08:00 +1000

The Australian Government is under fire for offering up areas close to the Rowley Shoals, a world-class diving spot off the West Australian coast, to oil and gas exploration.

Expressions of interest in the proposed lease areas, just three nautical miles from the coral reefs, close on Thursday.

The shoals, 260 kilometres west of Broome, are said to rival the Great Barrier Reef for their spectacular marine life.

Paul Gamblin of the World Wildlife Fund says any development so close to the reef would be devastating.

"It's a place where wildlife including whales and dolphins, turtles, sharks, tuna, fish in their abundance, hundreds of species of coral are found," he said.

"An oil spill, even a small spill, within a few kilometres of a place like this which is so healthy, so pristine, could be devastating."

The Federal Minister for Resources Martin Ferguson says part of the potential lease area is being considered for a marine reserve.

He says any successful bidder will have to have an environmental plan assessed by regulators, before undertaking any seismic or drilling activity.

In Western Australia, the State Opposition's Environment spokeswoman, Sally Talbot, has criticised the move by her Federal Labor colleagues.

She says it is also up to the State Government to oppose the leases.

"The whole of the Kimberley at the moment is gripped by uncertainty about the environmental future of the Kimberley under the Barnett Government," Dr Talbot said.

"I would expect the Barnett Government to be out there fighting ferociously to protect this precious area and all we're hearing at the moment is a deafening silence."

WA's Environment Minister says he has no control over mining companies being allowed to explore in the lease areas.

Bill Marmion says he only found out about the permits after hearing about them on the radio and there's not much he can do.

"It's outside our control, the Commonwealth have made the call on this," Mr Marmion said.

"I would hope because they've made the call they've analysed the situation properly and made sure there's no chance of oil spills but I would have thought a courtesy call, even though it's not in my waters, probably would have been the right way to go."

Tourism operators are concerned the drilling could ruin world-class diving spots in the area.

The Kimberley Marine Tourism Association vice president Craig Howson says offshore drilling would ruin the experience for tourists.

"The beauty of the Rowley Shoals is it's 300 kilometres off the coast of Broome and is absolutely in the middle of nowhere," Mr Howson said.

"So of course having large drilling within sight of the Shoals will change that wilderness aspect of the whole experience."

The oil and gas company Woodside says it plans to start drilling next year near Rowley Shoals, but that the work will be subject to rigorous environmental assessments.

Woodside and joint venture partner Shell were awarded three permits to explore in what is called the Rowley sub-basin last year.

The company says it operates a "two barrier" standard at all of its operations which prevents reservoir fluids flowing into the environment.

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