Oil and whales fight for territory
Could whales and oil platforms be neighbours? Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson seems to think they can. He has just released new offshore oil leases, and some of them lie in areas that are flagged as potential marine sanctuaries. Pia Volk reports.
Nearly 80 oil and gas approvals were made in Australian waters throughout the last 18 months, but not one marine reserve has been declared. Now federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has announced new drill and leases in South Australia and the area of Kangaroo Island – the same area that was flagged by Environment Minister Peter Garret for potential marine sanctuaries.
“What you’ve essentially seen is the Resources Minister Martin Ferguson jumping the gun and deliberately trying to get in before these marine sanctuaries have actually legally been declared,” says Peter Owen, campaign manager of the Wilderness Society in South Australia.
“They’ve been flagged and they’re currently being discussed, and now suddenly we’ve got oil acreage released right over the top of one of the more significant marine sanctuary propositions for the whole of southern Australia- the Kangaroo Island Canyons.”
The Kangaroo Island Canyons are very nutrient-rich areas and several species of whales feed there, a fact that has regional manager of the Whale and Dolphins Society Mike Bosseley concerned for their wellbeing.
“Whales and dolphins are vulnerable to being impacted by oil spills in several ways,” Bosseley says.
“One way is by eating the oil either directly in the water or if it gets onto fish. Another way is by absorbing it through their skins and another way is when the oil vaporises it just lies above the surface of the water and the whales and dolphins can breathe it in.”
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A similar case of conflicting interests between oil drilling and environmental protection occurred in Western Australia. There, a spokesperson of Mr Ferguson’s told The West Australian newspaper that the areas would continue to be evaluated as a marine reserve by the federal Environment Department, but within the framework of existing oil and gas leases.
“You can’t have a marine sanctuary with oil drilling in the middle of it… that completely defeats the purpose of having a marine sanctuary,” says Peter Owen. “What we’re basically calling on with the Rudd government is to make a decision here.”
Owen warns that the risk of accidents is very real.
“If you were to have an oil accident out where this is being proposed in the Kangaroo Islands Canyon area, you would decimate much of Kangaroo Island, which is South Australia’s tourism Mecca,” he says.
“You would then potentially also decimate much of the gulf areas and see oil washed up on some metropolitan beaches in Adelaide… We really can’t afford to take this type of risk.”
Pia Volk is a producer for The Wire .